CHATTANOOGA − Riverside football coach Johnnie Frost said that he could taste how close the Panthers were to their first gold ball.
A few calls here and a few calls there, some opportunities that weren't capitalized on, it would be the Panthers celebrating in front of the entire population of Decatur County.
Instead, the Panthers' first championship appearance resulted in a silver ball, tears and excitement for the future of the program after Tyner Academy (14-1) got a stop on a crucial two-point conversion to beat the Panthers 26-24 for the Class 2A championship at Finley Stadium on Saturday.
"These kids started back in January and told me that it was ring season," Frost said. "We kind of laughed about but then it became a serious thing in the weight room and workouts from January to July. By golly they got here.
"We graduate four starters from this team and I told them after the game that we're going to work even harder to make it back here. This is an incredible thing to be a part of the way the community supported us along the way, you can't ask for anything more than that."
Frost had some teams get close to the state title game before but they were never able to break through before this season. Since he was hired in 2016, the Panthers made semifinal appearances twice before securing the school's first state championship appearance with a road win at Huntingdon last week.
What was awaiting them was a team that no one outside of Alcoa had challenged all season. The Rams won their 13 games entering the state championship by an average of 35.5 points and recorded six shutouts along the way.
Not intimidated, the Panthers (12-3) opened the game scoring on their first drive and following an interception on Tyner's first drive, they drove down again and quickly had a 15-0 lead.
Tyner responded with two straight touchdowns and the teams went back-and-forth for the remainder of the half.
The Rams finally took control in the second half, scoring midway through the third and early in the fourth to take a 26-18 lead with just over 10 minutes remaining.
Stagnant on offense since their opening two drives, the Panthers finally found momentum late after Tyner Academy turned the ball over on downs with 3:55 remaining.
Riverside marched down the field and with 40 seconds remaining, Desmond Thomas scored on a short run to make it a two-point game.
The comeback bid would fall short on the ensuing two plays as Tyner stuffed the two-point conversion attempt and promptly recovered Riverside's onside kick.
The Rams were celebrating and the Panthers were already looking past the silver ball and ahead to what the 2023 season could hold with a majority of their team set to return.
"Doing this this year and thinking about what we'll do next season to follow this up, it's exciting," junior receiver Stone Wallace said. "The limitations to what we can do going forward are endless."
Reach Joe Spears at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter @joe_spears7.
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: TSSAA football: Riverside falls short in Class 2A championship vs Tyner