Stephon Mitchell accepts the TSSAA Class 1A runner-up trophy after South Pittsburg's 23-14 loss to Union City in Friday's championship game.
CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) -
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (WRCB) - Short.
It's the worst word to hear when pursuing a goal, and South Pittsburg heard it a few too many times in Friday afternoon's Class 1A state championship game.
Playing in the state final for the fifth time in seven years, the Pirates dug themselves an early hole before rallying late, only to come up short of their sixth state championship in a 23-14 loss to Union City at Tennessee Tech's Tucker Stadium.
The Golden Tornadoes bottled up South Pittsburg's powerful offense for much of the day, including senior running back Jajuan Lankford. The Mr. Football Back of the Year winner was limited to just 40 yards rushing on 12 carries, and was stopped a yard short of a crucial first down on fourth-and-four on what proved to be the Pirates' final possession.
"You hate being short, and that's all it feels like right now," said senior running back Kahlil Mitchell. "It's disappointing because we worked so hard to get here, only to come up short."
Ricky Henry ran 28 times for 101 yards and two touchdowns as Union City built up a 20-7 halftime advantage. Lankford capped South Pitt's 71-yard opening drive for a 7-0 lead, but the Golden Tornadoes responded with 20 unanswered points while holding the Pirates to just 36 total yards the rest of the half.
South Pittsburg's defense couldn't get off the field on third down, and the offense made costly mistakes in key situations with a botched fake punt and a Kahlil Mitchell fumble thwarting drives near midfield.
"We knew coming into the game that we'd have to keep pace with them. If they scored, we had to answer because if you don't do it, it plays right into their hands," said Tim Moore, who led the Pirates to a 12-2 overall record in his first season after replacing legendary coach Vic Grider. "We didn't make enough stops in the first half when we needed to and made too many mistakes. Then when we got them in the second half, we couldn't capitalize on them offensively."
The Pirates went to the air to spark a rally in the third quarter, with Kitt Grider hitting Corbin Fitzgerald on an 87-yard pass-play. However, Fitzgerald was tackled short of the goal-line, chased down from behind at the 9-yard line by D'Carrious Stevens. A botched pitch on third-and-goal led to a 13-yard loss, and the Pirates came up empty in the red zone.
"That was one of several chances we had to make a play to change the complexion of the game, but we were unable to take advantage of it," Moore said. "That really hurt."
Fitzgerald bounced back by recovering a fumble in Union City territory on the ensuing drive. For once, the Pirates would not come up short, as Mitchell broke free from the pack and cut back to open field for a 17-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-three that pulled South Pitt within 20-14 early in the fourth quarter.
"They were there and fighting to stop me from that yardage, but I knew I could get it. I needed to get those three yards, but then I saw (the open field) and cut back," said Mitchell, who finished with 107 yards rushing and the lone score. "I just knew I needed to score it then and get my team within six.
"It was a hell of a play."
But it wasn't enough.
The Golden Tornadoes marched the other way and added a field goal to stretch their lead to nine, then stopped Lankford short on fourth down before running out the clock.
"Every big down and every big play, we just fell short," Mitchell said. "It just feels like we let this one slip away."
It's the second state championship in school history for Union City, and both have come at the expense of South Pittsburg The Golden Tornadoes also beat the Pirates 31-29 for the title in 2010.
"Our freshman year we came here and beat Jo Byrnes, and that was a really nice feeling. Then we came back and lost the following year to Wayne County, so we knew what it felt like to lose here, too," said Payne Mosley, who was named the game's defensive MVP with 19 total tackles. "We wanted to come out here as a group as seniors and avoid that this year because we've talked ever since we were little that we wanted to leave here on top.