Jun. 12—For more than a decade, the Chattanooga area has had a run of small-school success unparalleled in Tennessee prep football.
Five programs have played for state championships over the past five seasons, and the area has had at least one team reach the title game in TSSAA Class 1A or 2A for eight straight years and 11 of the past 12 seasons.
Northwest Georgia has several small schools building toward contender status as well, and multiple area teams should make deep playoff pushes in both states this year.
In alphabetical order, here are the area's top six contenders among small schools (Classes 1A-3A and Division II-AA) for the 2021 season.
The disappointment of how last season ended — with a schoolwide quarantine costing the Chargers the chance to play their D-II AA quarterfinal — has given the team an approach of "unfinished business" to offseason workouts. Despite having graduated the players responsible for 96% of the team's offensive production and its two leading tacklers from 2020, Chattanooga Christian is loaded with talent among the underclassmen. The Chargers have just five seniors on this year's roster of 66 players, but with big-play threats such as sophomore running back Boo Carter — who already has a scholarship offer from Tennessee — talent should overcome inexperience.
Last year the Lions, who compete in Class A private, won their first GHSA region championship in program history, and they appear capable of winning a second straight. Coach Jay Poag's team will be led by one of the most productive quarterbacks in the area in Christian Thomas, who had nearly 2,500 total yards and accounted for 21 touchdowns last year. Solomon Locke, who is starting to garner some big-time recruiting attention, will be the featured back after rushing for 1,022 yards and eight touchdowns. The senior will also be a key member of an active linebacker corps.
One of the area's traditional powers seems to be building toward becoming a state contender once again and could be the biggest threat to Meigs County's run of 2A success. The same area where Meigs was hit hardest by graduation — line play on both sides of the ball — is one of Marion's biggest strengths. With speedy athletes Taye Hutchins and Rylee Rogers running behind an experienced line, Marion and Meigs could be on a collision course to meet for both the region championship and again in the playoffs.
Over the past five years, the Tigers have become the area's most consistent contender, finishing as 2A state runners-up the past two seasons after reaching the semifinals in 2018 and the quarterfinals in 2017. With eight starters back on defense — including all-state linebacker Ben Smith and defensive end Daquan Tatum — and an offense highlighted by the return of quarterback Logan Carroll and receiver Cam Huckabee, the Tigers should be poised for another deep run.
"The kids just understand now. We don't have to preach to them — they don't want to be on the team that has a letdown," said coach Jason Fitzgerald, whose program is 62-7 over the past five seasons.
Seth Griffin passed for 2,000 yards, ran for 364 more and produced 33 touchdowns as a sophomore last year, and Mountaineers coach Preston Poag said the 6-foot-4, 195-pound quarterback is just scratching the surface of his talent. There are plenty of young players ready to step up, including 6-4 receiver Michael McDade and sophomore Judson Petty, who was a star in spring practice. North Murray made the playoffs last fall in what was supposed to be a rebuilding season, and this year the Mountaineers expect to challenge for the GHSA Region 6-AAA title.
A new coach hasn't changed the expectations for a program that has reached at least the semifinal round four of the past five seasons and finished as 1A runner-up last year. Enough athletes return to make another run at the title game as running back DeAndre Kelly will be joined by brothers Reginald and Richard Hunter and Jayden Mount as offensive playmakers, with all-state lineman Gio Davis the anchor on defense.