“It is a great time to be from Henry County!”
This was one of Henry County High School head coach James Counce’s statements during a press conference shortly after his Patriot football team had defeated Powell High School 17-14 in the BlueCross Bowl Class 5A state championship game Friday at Tucker Stadium on the Tennessee Technological University campus in Cookeville.
It is the Patriots’ first state championship in any team sport in the school’s 43-year history. It is also the first state championship in Counce’s 39-year career in coaching. He has posted a 98-40 record at HCHS in two stints as the Patriot head coach.
Counce returned to coach the Patriots prior to the 2010 season. He led to the Patriots to a 10-2 season last year and Henry County finishes 15-0 this season.
“This is unbelievable, unbelievable, unbelievable,” Counce said. “This team is so tight. They love each other, they believe in each other and they love to play football. This has been a long time coming. This year was the fifth time Henry County has gotten to the semifinals and our first championship game. It was about time we got one.”
Counce and his Patriots had plenty of friends to help celebrate the championship victory. Many TSSAA and statewide media representatives asked if everyone in Henry County had turned out for the game after a sea of red filled up all three center sections at Tucker Stadium.
Mike Poteete, Henry County School System athletic director, said 2,300 tickets had been sold in Henry County prior to the game, but he guessed the crowd was more than twice that many in attendance at Cookeville.
The crowd for the contest was estimated by TSSAA officials to be the second largest ever for a title game but they didn’t provide numbers to back that claim.
The Patriot fans were announced as the winner’s of the BlueCross/BlueShield text message contest with Powell. The Patriots had the most text messages sent to a special number and Henry County High School will receive a $1,000 donation from the insurance company.
Henry County’s football players noticed the large crowd and said that spurred them on to the championship game victory.
“It felt just like a home game with all the noise, signs and banners and everything. Our crowd is just awesome,” Patriot senior Andrew Jelks said.
Patriot senior quarterback Najee Ray agreed.
“My heart just about stopped when I saw that crowd. It just made you want to run a little harder and do a little more because we have so much support. I just love each and every one of our fans. They have been with us each every step of the way through thick and thin,” Ray said.
Patriot assistant coach Chuck Adams has worked three times as an assistant coach at HCHS and been the school’s athletic director. He first came to HCHS as an assistant to Counce in 1985. He said it was hard to describe what it means to win the state championship with the Patriots.
“I’m so happy right now that I’m not sure I really know how I feel. I’m sure sometime over the next few days it will hit me,” Adams said.
“Powell has a great football team. Our kids really hung in there like they have all year and we were able to pull out the victory. I can’t say enough about these kids and our fans. Our fans were great. They truly were our twelfth man tonight,” he said.
Both Counce and Adams said the championship extended much further than just the Patriots that stood on the sideline Friday night in Cookeville.
“This championship is for everyone who ever pulled on a red jersey. It is for all the sweat and the hard work that has gone into it over the years. This is for everyone that has ever been a Patriot. We finally got the job done,” Counce said.
The biggest plays came from seniors Randall Dunlap, Shaquille Allen and Ray. Ainley kicked a fourth-quarter field goal to give the Patriots their first lead while Dunlap recovered a fumble to end Powell’s final chance to comeback that helped him earn the game’s Defensive Most Valuable Player award. Allen ran for 144 yards and two touchdowns while Ray had 154 yards in rushing.
“This just feels so good,” Dunlap said after the game. “I thought everyone played a great game. We played as one unit. Our coaches did a wonderful job of preparing us for the things that Powell did. I had no idea that I might win any kind of an award because we do everything as a team and as a family. We knew the game would be tough but we helped each other get through it and get a win.”
Senior Matt Craig said the state championship win is a culmination of four years of work.
“We worked hard all four years we’ve been part of the team to get here. We weren’t going to let anything stop us once we got here. It was great to get the lead and then have Randall make a big tackle and recover the fumble at the end. It was a big play,” Craig said.
Allen is the son of former Patriot runner Derrick Allen and the brother of the school’s all-time leading rusher Dominique. He said his family gave him a big lift right before the game. Shaquille Allen enjoyed a big game against Powell despite playing most of the contest with an injured wrist.
“My dad and brother called me before the game and told me to have a good game and how proud they were for the team to be playing in the championship game. It was a game that was full of ups and downs but we kept pushing and making plays when we needed to make plays. I hurt my wrist but there was no way I was going to stop running hard and trying to help us get this win. We just kept working hard like we have all season and we pulled out the win,” Shaquille Allen said.
Look for more details and descriptions of the game on Page 6. Pages 4-5 have photographs of the Patriots during the game, after the game and of the state championship celebration.