By Michael Lindsay
A rematch two months in the making lived up to the hype Friday night as the Upperman Bees defeated Macon County in the Class 4A quarterfinals, 17-14.
“I don’t think I took a breath until they took the timeout and I had to double-check with the referees to make sure we could kneel it,” said Upperman head coach Adam Caine. “That’s a pretty cool feeling and that’s a freaking good football team and a heck of a high school game.”
The Region 4-4A foes previously faced off on Sept. 3 in Lafayette, where Upperman won a down-to-the-wire contest, 14-7. Friday’s playoff rematch in Baxter again went in favor of the Bees as the 17-14 win clinches their semifinal berth next week.
“It’s a big environment; hats off to Macon,” Caine said. “They (Macon) brought a ton of people. I think this is what high school sports is all about.”
Upperman running back Ethan Palk led all rushers with 94 yards on 18 carries. Jaxson Rollins made his carries count for the Bees as he had 47 rushing yards and a touchdown on 3 carries.
Sophomore quarterback Bronzden Chaffin went 6-8 for 112 yards and a touchdown through the air for Upperman.
Macon County was led by a balanced effort from quarterback Luke Gammon as he went 7-8 for 117 yards and a touchdown through the air while rushing for 31 yards.
The Bees struck first following a Tiger turnover as Rollins broke loose down the home sideline for a 43-yard touchdown run to give Upperman a 7-0 lead with 4:54 remaining in the first quarter.
Macon County responded early in the second period as Zach Borders took a carry 21 yards to the end zone for a touchdown, tying the game at 7-7.
Upperman would find the scoreboard once more before halftime as kicker Sebastian Stanfill nailed a 30-yard field goal with 2:16 remaining in the second quarter to give the Bees a 10-7 lead.
“That field goal we made was the difference in the ball game,” Caine said. “They have really good players and they’re hard to stop.”
Macon County threatened with less than a minute remaining until halftime as the Tigers completed a long pass inside the Upperman 10-yard line before Baxter defensive back Branson Turnbow forced and recovered a fumble to keep the Tigers out of the end zone.
“He’s a big-play kid,” Caine said. “The biggest play of the night was stripping that ball down here.”
Following the turnover, Upperman took a 10-7 lead into the locker room at halftime.
“I felt like my players were a little too emotional,” Caine said. “We try to separate playing with emotion but not being emotional.”
Upperman pushed their lead out to 10 points midway through the third quarter as Chaffin found Turnbow uncovered down the left side of the field for a 52-yard touchdown pass with 7:54 remaining in the third quarter. The Bees led 17-7 following the PAT.
Macon County didn’t go away quietly as a big completion from Gammon to Braylon Flowers late in the third quarter set the Tigers up deep in Upperman territory to enter the fourth quarter.
Macon County found pay dirt early in the final period as Gammon hit Matthew Wheeley on a 4-yard touchdown pass with 11:05 remaining in the contest to cut Upperman’s lead to 17-14.
“It seemed like a lot of stuff went against us; we had to do one play at a time and figure this thing out,” Caine said.
Following Macon County’s touchdown, Upperman took over ahead by 3 points with 10:56 remaining.
Macon County’s offense didn’t touch the ball again as the Bees controlled the ball for the final 10:56 minutes on a 20-play drive to close out their 17-14 victory.
“I take a lot of pride in how we won that game,” Caine said. “We hung on defensively, and when the O-Line and Ethan Palk took over, that was pretty special to me.”
The game-sealing drive included a fourth-and-three conversion in Macon County territory with 3 minutes remaining.
“When the game’s on the line, you want to go with your strong suit,” Caine said. “I was talking to our coaches on the headset as we were running the play. I wanted to give Palk the ball.”
The 13-0 Bees are back in the Class 4A state semifinals as they’ll travel to Greeneville next week while Macon County wraps up their season at 11-2 overall.
“This will be my third trip (to the semifinals) with this program and it’s time for us to find a way to bust through,” Caine added.
*Photos by Madeline Lindsay/A Thousand Times Photography*