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Irish best Mitchell for first 3A state championship
Tilley-Lane ‘How the West Was Won’ champs roll to 28-18 win

MURFREESBORO — Knoxville Catholic finally put an exclamation point on an undefeated football season.

At Middle Tennessee State University’s Johnny “Red” Floyd Stadium, Saturday, Dec. 6, the Irish claimed the TSSAA Class 3A state championship with a 28-18 win against Memphis Mitchell.

Senior Nick Branum earned defensive most valuable player honors and in doing so made the biggest play of the season for the Irish, as KCHS wins the program’s first-ever state title and ends the season 15-0.

Up three with under five minutes to play and Mitchell in the middle of seven-play drive, Branum stepped in front of a Robert Redmond pass and returned the interception 56 yards to turn the tide for good.

Four plays later junior quarterback Tyler Williamson snuck in from the 1-yard line to put the Irish up 10 points with just under three minutes to play in the game.

“Just like they’ve done all year, they made plays in the clutch,” KCHS head coach Mark Pemberton said. “There’s something about this group of kids, they just made plays when they had to all year.”

Pemberton talked about what it means to be a state champion. “I was fortunate enough to win a state title in high school and I wanted these players to experience it, because they deserved it,” he said.

Williamson tried to identify what was so special about this team: “We don’t have to go to one guy. Every player can step up on both offense and defense. One thing that makes this team special is that we mesh well, everyone gets along, we’re a family.”

No other play can demonstrate that better than the last play of the game.

Zach Vann, standout senior runningback/defensive back who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Catholic’s first game, took the snap and downed the ball as time expired.

The Irish defense was burdened with stopping some big playmakers for Mitchell (10-5). Defensive coordinator Kevin Smith was especially proud of the effort made by Branum, saying after the game, “He did a great job tonight. We put him against No. 7 [Keiwone Malone] who’s got three SEC offers as a junior.

“Basically everybody all year has been playing him 10, 20 yards deep and we asked Nick Branum to step up and jam him all night, and Nick got in his face and disrupted him and did a great job making plays that our team needed to have,” Smith added.

Malone was held to three catches for 31 yards and was a non-factor in the game. Mitchell’s depth does not end with Malone though, and another one of the weapons was firing on all cylinders. Artaves Gibson, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound sophomore tailback, was giving the Irish fits all day.

Luke Smith, Catholic senior linebacker, talked about Graves after the game. “He’s a load, he’s going to be a heck of a running back, he’s fast too,” Smith said. “We are going to be reading about him later.”

But Knoxville Catholic has weapons of its own, and featured them early.

With Mitchell up 6-0 after a 10-play drive, sophomore Cody Shirley set the Irish up by returning the ensuing kickoff to the Catholic 38.

Two plays later Williamson hooked up with Branum for a 55-yard touchdown pass. The extra point put the Irish up 7-6.

“We saw that their safeties were biting up,” Branum said. “That safety bit up I just replaced him. I ran a post-vertical and it was wide open. It was a perfect pass by Tyler.”

On its next drive, the Tigers moved the ball 59 yards in six plays, including a fourth-down run by Gibson that went for 35 yards. On the play Catholic sophomore Michael Bonfini suffered a gruesome leg injury, which sent him off the field on a golf cart. He would return to the sideline later in a cast and on crutches.

Two plays later and Gibson scored on a 4-yard run. The Tigers could not convert on the 2-point play, making the score 12-7.

Then the Irish took over and did to the Tigers what they have done to opponents all year.

Cody Shirley capped off a 9-play, 70-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run.

Up 14-12, the defense made a huge stop on the next possession, stopping the Tigers on a fourth-and-10 screen pass to Gibson.

After taking over on its own 34, the Irish offense, led by Williamson, put together an 11-play drive and kept the ball for nearly six minutes.

The series ended with 3A Mr. Football Lineman, senior Daniel Hood, catching an 18-yard touchdown pass to give the Irish a nine-point lead, 21-12.

The first half ended when Mitchell blocked a 40-yard field goal attempt by Evan Sanders.

Time expired on the play after Knoxville Catholic’s Brian Metz made a touchdown-saving tackle on the blocked return at the Catholic 24.

When play resumed in the second half the game plan for the Tigers seemed simple: hand the ball to Artaves Gibson.

While Gibson was able to rack up yards, the Irish defense made plays in the clutch.

After a 6-minute, 10-play drive for the Irish stalled at the Mitchell 17 on a fourth down incompletion by Williamson, the junior made a defensive play of his own.

With the Tigers driving, Williamson intercepted a pass at the Catholic 5 to end the threat.

The Tigers took advantage of the short field after the Irish were forced to punt from its own end zone.

Gibson took the ball and rushed for 45 yards of the 47-yard drive and scored from five yards out. Another missed 2-point conversion kept the Irish lead at three, 21-18.

The next Catholic drive ended when Mitchell recovered an Irish fumble at its own 31.

Then came Branum’s heroics, and the Irish could start to smell a state championship.


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