By Tim Chambers
Tomahawk Sports Editor
I can remember the month and year as though it was yesterday. I received a phone call from the Tomahawk’s previous editor Angie Gambill asking me to take over the sports at the newspaper in August of 2014.
I had spent 13 years covering sports at the Elizabethton Star but wasn’t retained after the newspaper was sold. At first, I said no, but then I begin to have second thoughts.
I missed covering the high school games, and I figured that a new change of scenery might be good. The second phone call I made to Angie was one of my best calls ever.
I joined the Tomahawk as the sports editor in September of 2014. My first contact made was with first-year head coach Don Kerley. He had replaced longtime head coach Mike Atwood at the helm but had starred as the Longhorns’ quarterback in 1988, which happened to be one of their best teams ever.
It was the icebreaker that I needed because he and his coaching staff welcomed me with open arms; so did all the middle school and youth league coaches.
I found this community to be a very special place, like a second home for me. I still feel the same way nearly five years later.
Kerley stuck to the game plan
I came on board three games into the season, and the Horns were 1-2 with losses to Tennessee High and Cloudland. They had thrashed Grayson County, Virginia in week two but they found their groove in the first game that I covered. They destroyed Happy Valley 34-14 and nearly knocked off Hampton before losing 30-22.
The following week they hammered Sullivan North 28-6, and the play of one gusty senior stood out.
Warren Kerley’s frame didn’t resemble that of a quarterback, but his play sure did. Kerley threw the ball all over the field in the first three games that I covered, racking up nearly 700 yards passing.
But it was the Unicoi game that defined his toughness and that of his uncle, Coach Don Kerley.
Kerley shines despite the rain and cloudy skies
All of a sudden the season turned magical. The Longhorns would route the Blue Devils 26-6 behind the gutsy play of Warren Kerley that pushed their conference record at 3-0.
The offense moved the football up and down the field and only turned it over one time. Coach Don said it best after the game.
“This might have been our best overall game of the year,” said Kerley. “We had people blocking and not standing around. The defense picked us up, and the offense made plays. It was a well-rounded performance by our players.”
Especially by their little spark plug quarterback
He completed a 31-yard pass inside the 10 to Chase Phillips who had faked a punt on fourth down and tossed a 24-yard pass to Alex Trussler to keep the drive alive.
I had a great deal of respect for Coach Kerley after that drive. He didn’t shy away from the game plan and threw
the ball when most teams would have never entertained the thought on a muddy
Aaron Osborne capped off the drive with a three-yard touchdown run that put them up 7-0 after Rico Ortega’s PAT.
Unicoi answered by scoring their only touchdown but missed the extra point and trailed 7-6.
Coach Kerley didn’t ditch the passing game. He continued to play the role of a riverboat gambler after their second drive was stalled.
Quarterback Warren Kerley continued to impress by completing a 31-yard pass to Greg Roark on fourth down to the three-yard line after alluding two would-be tacklers. Cole Peters would bulldoze his way in from there to put the Horns up 13-6.
Once again Coach Kerley stuck to the game plan.
Neither team scored in the third quarter, but Johnson County would add a baker’s dozen in the fourth period to gather the win and run their overall record at 4-3.
Mix it up
Peters rushed for 90 yards including 47 on their longest drive of the year at 99 yards. Kerley’s numbers included 101 yards on the ground and 157 through the air. Osborne added 55 more on the ground as the Horns racked up over 400 yards to total offense.
The buck stops here
That would be the last win of the season despite Johnson County making the playoffs. The conference was stacked, and so was the bottom half of their schedule.
The lost to Elizabethton and Sullivan South in back-to-back weeks who were both ranked in the state polls at the time. South had defeated Greeneville 21-20, and Elizabethton had enjoyed
wins over Tennessee High, Daniel Boone, and David Crockett.
The Longhorns dropped their final two games to Sullivan East 8-19 who finished 7-4 and made the playoffs and to state runner-up Alcoa in the first round of the playoffs.
Throughout the rollercoaster season, Kerley made me feel like a part of the team. He
was the same man who I found to be a role model coach
to his players, a father figure and outstanding Christian man.
Coach Kerley was rewarded last season for weathering the storm. It all started with the conference being realigned. Elizabethton and Tennessee High were no longer there,
and neither was Sullivan
The Horns finished the regular season at 10-0 and won their first-round playoff game over Northview Academy 21-20. They lost a close game the following week to Austin East, but their 11 wins and 11-1 record is now in the record books.
They now are remembered as the team with the best record ever, most wins and highest ranking ever. They were the state’s No. 3 team for seven weeks.
Coach Kerley demeanor never changed during my four years of observing him. He was the same when the team was 11-0 as he was in 2014 when they finished 4-7.
He stuck to the game plan despite some criticism. In return, he gave Johnson County fans something special that would last for a lifetime.
I’ve tried to follow his example and give our readers something special each week that they can enjoy.
God willing I’ll be there on August 16 at Sullivan East to begin my fifth season cover Johnson County sports. So will Coach Kerley.
Go Longhorns. I need a new visor Coach Don.
Tim Chambers is the sportswriter for the Tomahawk. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.