Based on the last two high school football seasons at McMinn Central, a berth in the Class 3A state playoffs in 2012 would've seemed far-fetched for many. But what do they know?
The Chargers put those 0-10 and 1-9 seasons behind them. In the spring they met with Knoxville's Grace Christian, a Class 2A team with a combined 19-1 record the last two years, and proved to themselves they had a competitive fire. The positive vibes carried over to summer workouts, and the players began eagerly waiting for the season to start.
"We weren't going to take anything less than a playoff run," said junior tailback Denzell Boyd, who has done his part, rushing for 1,338 yards and 23 touchdowns.
As it turned out, the believers were right. McMinn Central (5-5) drew the toughest assignment in a road trip to longtime power and top-ranked Alcoa (9-1), but the goal of qualifying for postseason is a reality. Kickoff for tonight's game is at 7.
McMinn Central coach Josh Goodin said the biggest change from the last two seasons has been in attitudes.
"That's half the battle, especially in high school," Goodin said. "The mental part of the game is probably the biggest part of the game. Going in thinking we can compete with anybody is a big improvement from where we were."
That has led to big improvement elsewhere.
"Practices have been completely different," Boyd said. "You've got to give a hundred percent, and everyone does that every day. The intensity level is different. How hard we work is different. We just have a different mindset this year. This year everyone is on board."
A schematic change was made after the 2010 season. The double-wing, triple-option offense was shut out twice that season and didn't produce more than seven points in any of the other games.
Now the Chargers use an I-formation in which the linemen can fire off and be physical. Boyd has averaged 18.6 carries per game and the team has averaged 25.1 points.
Junior Gage Johnson has contributed at fullback and sparkled at middle linebacker for McMinn Central with 68 solo stops among his 87 tackles with four fumbles caused and two interceptions. Although the Chargers have 15 seniors, a high number for them, he said some youngsters who could only watch during the lean years are starting to make a difference.
"Some of the young guys are a lot more comfortable playing now," Johnson said. "They came up and they kind of had the same bad tastes in their mouths as we did."
Boyd and Johnson said the community support has been great, hard times included, which makes it sweeter that they've been able to give their fans a turnaround season. Whereas in recent years Goodin said the team was often defeated before it ever played its opponent, that's no longer the case. Not even this week.
"We have a game plan," Johnson said. "We're going to have to be ready. We're going to have to be strong defensively. They've got a lot of speed, so we're going to have to meet them at the line. We feel good. We're looking forward to it."
Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.