“It’s always difficult to play somebody twice,” said Henry County head football coach James Counce after his team defeated the Northeast Eagles 39-7 on Friday night to advance to the 5A state semifinals.

What was more difficult was that the Eagles had to go to Paris, Tenn. to play a team that beat them 58-0 at home less than one month ago.

“We just kept asking ourselves, ‘Are they really 58 points better than us?’ And the answer was always ‘no,’” said Northeast head coach Brandon Clark. “They’re a great football team. They try and get you to make mistakes, and they don’t make a lot of mistakes. They try to get you to play in an uncomfortable manner.”

Clark took accountability for not having his team mentally prepared when the Patriots trounced them in October. They were better equipped this time around, even pumping loud music and stadium sounds into practice throughout the week to get his team used to playing in one of the most unique settings in Tennessee.

Last time, Henry County jumped out to a 21-0 lead less than four minutes into the game – but the Eagle defense held stronger on Friday night. The Patriots still managed to score on their first possession, but it took them an almost unheard of 10 minutes to go from kickoff to the end zone, culminating in a Jermarcus Johnson 1-yard touchdown run.

Northeast even moved the ball a bit on their first few possessions, though the first two resulted in punts – one of which was blocked – and each ensuing drive also yielded Johnson touchdowns. He ended up scoring four times, including off runs of 30 and 43 yards.

After completing a pass down the sideline to wide receiver Jaylen Bussey, quarterback Jaiden Puig and the Eagles had something going before halftime – but the sophomore gunslinger followed it up with a throw into triple-coverage and was intercepted by Patriot Rylan Perry.

The Patriots took an 18-0 lead into halftime. It was one-sided – but hardly the 31-0 tally it was in their first meeting.  With the Eagles getting the ball out of halftime, it felt like maybe they could still be in the game if they came out strong.

And they did.

Puig made up for his early error with a zip to slot Jaylin Bowser – a focal point of the offense all night – who broke from the Henry County defense for a 64-yard touchdown. The Eagles followed it up by forcing a three-and-out and, suddenly, they had a chance to get within four points in the third quarter. Their offense retook the field with the sideline buzzing and optimism flowing from their fans who made the trip. For the first time all night, the Patriots’ fans were worrying instead of blaring sirens.

But that all changed when once again, Rylan Perry – not an Eagle receiver – came down with a Puig pass. Everything went downhill for Northeast from there.

“I’m trying to get us where like, we’re not on sky-high when things are great and then we’re low on the ground when things are bad,” Clark said. “I’m trying to get the even-keeled approach. It takes some time, it really does. We’ll have everybody hyped and all that, then something happens, and you just crash to the ground again.

“It definitely took the wind out of the sails, that’s for sure.”

The Patriots went on to score three more touchdowns and end the Eagles’ season. They finished 7-3 with a second-place finish in Region 7-5A and a trip to the TSSAA 5A quarterfinals.

In a year where they weren’t even allowed to practice in pads until August and had to postpone the start of their season, the Eagles made adversity a part of their daily lives and trudged forward to one of their better finishes in the school’s recent history.

“Everything around us with the COVID and whatnot, not really knowing what was going to happen from day-to-day… It kind of set the tone for the season early on,” Clark said.

“We were just able to parlay that just about every week, about facing adversity. The seniors, they grabbed a hold of that idea from the get-go of just not backing down and just going through wherever we needed to go through. I hope that’s an attitude we can take and keep going on as we progress.”

The team will graduate 23 seniors, including several defensive leaders and their top two receivers.

As for the Patriots, they will advance to play the Region 5-5A champion Summit Spartans in the state semifinals on Friday, Nov. 27.

Their week leading up to the game will be business as usual – albeit with some turkey and potatoes on Thursday.

“I think it’s one of the greatest weeks in high school football,” Counce said. “I just want the kids to understand how blessed we are to have that opportunity.”

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