The Indians (8-1) dropped from No. 4 in the Associated Press Class 6A rankings to No. 8 following a 23-17 loss to Science Hill. Likewise, Aloca’s only loss of the season came at the hands of its biggest rival, Maryville, in Week 3.
That’s not the only parallel.
Alcoa (8-1), the top-ranked team in Class 3A, is looking for its fifth straight state title in that class. The Tornadoes feature a stingy defense which has six shutouts on the season.
D-B has four shutouts on the year, and the 23 points scored by Science Hill was a season-high against the Indians’ defense. Nevertheless, Indians coach Joey Christian is proud of how his team responded after suffering its first loss of the season.
“The boys have been great. I told them Friday night you have to take every failure in life and use it as a learning experience,” Christian said. “They’ve done a tremendous job at that. We as coaches understand where we’ve failed, and they as players understand where they failed. But we’re trying to get better and get back on the right track.”
An Alcoa program with a Tennessee-record 17 state championships certainly presents a roadblock to the right track. The Tornadoes have either won the state title or lost to the eventual champion every year since 2003. Coach Gary Rankin has 14 state titles — 10 at Alcoa and four at Riverdale — and his 433 victories put him as the state’s all-time wins leader.
The Tornadoes feature 14 seniors and junior quarterback Sam Vaulton, the team’s inspirational leader.
As an eighth-grader, Vaulton lost part of the index finger on his throwing hand in an ATV accident. Adapting to the challenges, the 6-foot-3 Vaulton is listed as the No. 3 pro-style quarterback in Tennessee for his class, according to the QB Hit List website.
He has plenty of weapons around him including junior wide receiver Camden Burden, who scored five touchdowns in an Oct. 4 win over Northview Academy.
Tristan Blankenship and Ahmaudd Sankey are a pair of explosive running backs, with Sankey rushing for 154 yards and four touchdowns in the Tornadoes’ 49-0 win over Gatlinburg-Pittman. Wide receiver Isiah Cox and tight end Ronald Jackson give Vaulton other key targets to throw to.
Josh Hall, a freshman, is listed as the starting center, along with another freshman, Lance Williams, at right tackle. There’s plenty of experience with seniors Brackston Alford, Eli Mitchell, Malik Hall and Daunte Asbury in the mix.
“Everybody on their team is pretty good,” Christian said. “Sam Vaulton has some offers to play for some smaller schools. Sankey has some D1 offers as does Isiah Cox. Brackston Alford is committed to Memphis and Mitchell and Hall have some D2 offers.
“We’re looking at a very talented football team. We may not have the individual accolades, but we’ve got a good team too and we’re going to compete like crazy.”
The D-B defense was incredibly stingy against the running game of Science Hill, holding the Hilltoppers to 16 yards on 24 attempts. While they got pressure on Science Hill quarterback Connor Batchelder, he was able to make just enough plays with his arm in the upset.
Linebacker Braxton Kulbacki leads the Indians with 66 tackles, followed by Jackson Martin with 63, including nine for loss, eight sacks and two fumble recoveries.
Jet Harris has 61 tackles, eight for loss, eight sacks and three forced fumbles. Other leaders are Nate Whitley with 56 tackles and Isaac Ratliff with 43.
ALCOA DEFENSE VS. D-B OFFENSE
While Alcoa’s offense has averaged 42.2 points per game, it’s the defense which has truly excelled. The unit shut out every team in the Tornadoes’ region and gave up 14 points against Class 6A Blackman and 17 to Maryville.
Operating out of a 3-4 defense, Soloman Tyson lines up at nose guard with Taharin Sudderth and Gray Carroll at defensive ends.
The linebacking corps includes Luke Summerall and Tristan Blankenship on the inside and C.J. Armstrong and Ronald Jackson on the outside.
Safeties are Caden Tollett and Brayden Anderson with Itty Salter and Cox on the corners.
“Gray Carroll, the defensive end, has offers from all kinds of people,” Christian said. “Soloman Tyson is a tremendous football player, and it seems there has been a Tyson down there forever. Those guys do a great job, stopping the run. They can stop the pass as well with the way they play the back end.”
Junior quarterback Zane Whitson has been efficient and effective, leading the D-B offense. He has completed 93 of 160 passes for 1,392 yards with 17 touchdowns and one interception.
Hayden Sherer was the preferred target against Science Hill, making seven catches for 100 yards. He’s tied with Dalton Harkleroad for the team lead with 17 catches overall. Harkleroad has 262 yards and three touchdowns and Sherer has 253 yards.
Nacir Sensabaugh has 16 catches for 275 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 30.6 yards per catch. Cameron Williamson has 10 receptions, while Phillip Armitage has nine.
Tyler Tesnear leads the rushing attack with 110 carries for 656 yards and 10 touchdowns. Armitage has 116 rushes for 577 yards and seven touchdowns, while Whitson has 46 carries for 279 yards and five touchdowns.
Tesnear is the scoring leader with 12 touchdowns for 72 points, while kicker Jaden Alderson has made seven field goals and 42 extra points for 63 overall.
Scoring points will be a premium with Alcoa considered the best team Dobyns-Bennett has faced all season.
“What a challenge, but what a great opportunity as well,” Christian said. “We have to play to the standards we’ve played to the previous nine games, and we will see where the chips fall. We expect to play hard and give ourselves a chance to win.”