The anticipation for the TSSAA 1A State Championship game was exhilarating. Social media, radio, newspapers, and the web produced massive amounts of hype for this game.
The Falcons traveled up on Thursday. They made stops at Margaret Newton and Lara Kendall before heading to Dyersburg to eat at Alvino’s. After filling their bellies, they headed to Nashville for a walk-thru at Vanderbilt Stadium. After the walk-thru, the Falcons loaded the bus to finish the trip to the Country Inn and Suites in Cookeville.
After a short layover at the hotel, everyone boarded the buses to go to Golden Corral. Needless to say, the buffet did not stand much of a chance. With their bellies full, it was back to the hotel for a team meeting and Chapel.
During the team meeting, LCHS cheer sponsor Kellie Medina presented headbands in honor of Cathey Gearin, the aunt to Head Coach Josh Puckett, to each of the football players. Medina bought headbands for Cayden and Campbell Puckett to wear in the game. The company, Temple Tape out of New York, heard the story and donated enough headbands for the whole team to have one.
It is unknown if anyone actually slept on Thursday night. The excitement and anxiety of the battle ahead sparked adrenaline in everyone at the hotel.
The next morning everyone made their way to Tucker Stadium on the campus of Tennessee Tech University on the opposite side of Cookeville.
During the pregame speech to the team, Coach Puckett said, “Stay in the grind. You guys have done a fantastic job of that all year of being very smart, very old mature guys. Do that again for us today. Alright. Nothing special about this atmosphere. Only thing special is in this locker room. You guys play … and you will be State Champions today.”
The coin flip led to Greenback getting the ball to start the game.
Greenback took the kick-off on the 10-yard line and ran it out to the 31-yard line before being tackled by Izaiah Matheny. The Falcon defense did not allow the Cherokees to get past the 42-yard line with big stops by James Wilson and Keyshon Gross.
Starting on the 32-yard line, the Lake County offense seemed like they were going to run the ball down the throat of the Cherokees. But a few miscues backed Lake County up to the 17-yard line. As if nothing happened, focused and professional, Tanner Snyder threw a pass to Izaiah Matheny for a Falcon touchdown. Snyder ran in the two-point conversion and with 5:18 on the clock in the first quarter, Lake County led Greenback 8 – 0.
Greenback’s next possession was short. With a pass breakup by Cayden Puckett and two incomplete passes by Brayden Carnes, the quarterback for the Cherokees, Greenback was quick to punt the ball.
Snyder threw a beautiful pass to Cayden Puckett on the next drive for 32 yards. It would not be enough. Despite a valiant effort by Snyder, Tubbs, and the Falcon offense, they turned the ball over on downs at the 21-yard line on a fourth and one.
Greenback found the endzone on their next possession. Carnes completed a long pass to Zachary Stinnett for 48 yards. After some maneuvering, the Cherokees made it to the 1-yard line. Mr. Football winner, Holden Willis, took the direct snap on first and goal for the touchdown. Carnes threw a short pass to Alexander Belcher for the two-point conversion. In the second quarter, with 3:19 on the clock, the game was tied 8 – 8.
During the next possession, Snyder’s pass on fourth and sixteen was intercepted by Blake Fields. The Cherokees did not make much of it and ended the half with the game tied 8 – 8.
During halftime, Coach Puckett and the coaches made it clear to the players that they just had to keep it up and they would win.
It was the same message that Coach Puckett had preached throughout the week to the team. Afterward, Coach Puckett said, “I knew throughout the week, that as long as we played out game, we would win. My message to them was to be ourselves and be loose.”
The Falcons drove the ball on a 10-play drive for another touchdown. With Larry Tubbs, at this point in the game a 2,025-yard rusher, out of the game, Cayden Puckett stepped into the role. Puckett took a direct snap for five yards. Malachi Taylor took a hand-off for one yard. Puckett took another direct snap for fourteen yards. A few snaps later, Snyder launched a long pass to Matheny for 48 yards and the first down on the 12-yard line. After an incomplete pass and a run by Snyder, he threw a quick pass to Matheny for another touchdown. Puckett took yet another direct snap to put Lake County Falcons up 16 – 8 with 6:32 on the clock in the third quarter.
After the next kickoff, 21 seconds later, Holden Willis completed a pass to Wyatt Rutgerson for a 43-yard touchdown. Rutgerson would get the pass for the two-point conversion as well. With 6:13 on the clock, the game was again tied at 16 – 16.
Snyder did not waste much time moving back down the field with another long pass to Matheny down to the 10-yard line. A rush by Puckett and another by Snyder put the Falcons back up 22 – 16. The two-point conversion failed but with 4:12 on the clock, the Falcons led once again.
After a few costly penalties and some runs by the Greenback offense, the Cherokees scored on a 5-yard run by Rutgerson. Lucas Holmes added the extra point to give Greenback their first lead of the game 23 – 22 with 2:44 on the clock in the third quarter.
Malachi Taylor took the next kickoff back 80 yards for a touchdown. As quickly as the excitement built, it passed because there was a questionable penalty called on the Falcons. In addition to the penalty on the sideline, Lake County lost 30 yards on two calls. The Falcons would punt the ball back to the Cherokees.
A short kick, that was partially blocked, gave Greenback good field position. Over the course of the next few plays, Cayden Puckett intercepted Carnes pass at the 9-yard line. Two plays later, Snyder’s pass was intercepted by Greenback. Despite being on the goal line, Carnes and the offense tried to pass the ball. Cayden Puckett came up huge again with another interception.
The Falcons did not give up this opportunity. Controlling the ball and moving 92 yards on nine plays, the offense scored again. With another pass to Matheny, a pass to Malachi Taylor for nine yards, and a 17-yard run of his own during the drive, Snyder seemed to will the offense down the field for the score. Puckett added the two-point conversion with his brother, Campbell, leading the way. The Falcons led 30 – 23 with 7:28 in the fourth quarter.
The next kickoff and first play would be the crucial one for Greenback and Lake County. On the first snap, Carnes passed the ball out to a receiver, but Tanner Snyder snatched the ball from the air to return it 33 yards for a Falcon touchdown. Punishing several defenders coming into the end zone on the two-point conversion, Snyder added the points to put the Falcons up 38 – 23 with 7:10 to go in the game.
Nothing could be heard in the stadium because of the screams of the Falcon faithful in the stands. The bedlam that ensued was probably recorded on the Richter scales for hundreds of miles. With Falcon fans listening from Kansas City to Florida and across the country as far as California, the excitement soared.
Coach Puckett said later of his assurance of the point he knew the game was over, “Obviously none of us would feel extremely comfortable until Tanner had the pick 6. That gave us a 2 TD lead and gave us some breathing room. We just made so many mistakes offensively in the first half and that kept them in it.”
The Greenback offense took the field down by 15 points. Of their eight snaps, five passes fell incomplete. A flag for an ineligible receiver and a huge hit on Rutgerson by Snyder kept the ball from moving much. After going for it on fourth and ten, Carnes turned the ball over on downs.
Of the next plays for the Falcons, Snyder took eight of the next nine until the Falcons could get into victory formation. With the clock ticking the final few seconds, the Lake County Falcons stepped onto the field to celebrate their first State Championship since 1985.
Amidst the chaos of the celebration, Tanner Snyder was caught on camera by Todd Rushing and many others taking his jersey off, jogging over to the stands, and giving this prize to Nick Bingham. It was a show of true character on the part of Snyder and one that truly showed the person that he is. It also reflected the kind of student athletes that are on the Falcon football team and students in the halls of its schools.
Coach Puckett said, “That was a special deal. I am so proud of Tanner and the young man that he is. I am so happy for Nick. He has been such a loyal fan.”
Head Coach Josh Puckett was able to cry and celebrate with his two sons. Senior Campbell Puckett and sophomore Cayden Puckett, both starters for the Falcons embraced their father on the field.
“It was the greatest moment of my life. I will never forget that as long as I live,” Puckett said of his sons’ embraces and winning the championship together.
The Falcons totaled up a whopping 20 first downs to Greenbacks 9 first downs. The Falcons 535 total offensive yards (269 rushing and 266 passing) doubled the 239 offensive yards for Greenback. The time of possession for Lake County was 35:42, where as the Greenback TOP was 12:18. The Falcons were 10 of 14 on third down conversions.
The number 16 was obvious on the stat sheet. There were 16 quarterback hurries that led to one sack and three turnovers. Those three turnovers led to 16 points.
The other number was three. There were three interceptions, three tackles for loss, and three pass breakups. Those led to three Greenback punts by Holden Willis. Carnes was 8 for 26 for 157 yards.
Malachi Taylor stepped up on defense to hold Holden Willis had 1 reception for seven yards.
Offensively, Lake County won the time of possession, offensive stats, and defensively secured the game. Possibly, they also drank the most Mountain Dew at halftime as well.
Tanner Snyder had 24 rushes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Snyder was 12 for 22 for 266 yards and two touchdowns. He was not sacked.
Cayden Puckett rushed 11 times for 77 yards. Puckett caught 4 passes for 82 yards. He had one kick return for nine yards.
Larry Tubbs rushed 10 times for 71 yards. This put him 25 yards over 2,000 for his senior season.
Malachi Taylor had two rushes for four yards. Taylor caught one pass for nine yards.
Izaiah Matheny caught seven passes for 175 yards. Matheny had two touchdowns.
James Wilson had four tackles and one tackle for loss for four yards. Izaiah Matheny had four tackles. Malachi Taylor had four tackles. Keyshon Gross had three tackles and one sack for a loss of four yards. Cayden Puckett had two tackles, two interceptions, and one pass break-up. Tanner Snyder had one tackle and an interception for 33 yards to seal the game. Rodshun Cheirs had two tackles, Justin Morgan had two tackles. Seven other players had defensive stats. Seven different players had quarterback hurries on the Greenback quarterback, Carnes.
Following the game, Coach Puckett said of the championship and the Falcon victory, “Thankful. Unbelievably thankful. Thankful for those kids. Thankful for 7 years of hard work man. I just can’t hardly get over it. I know it’s going to take a while for it to sink in.”
The Falcons football team took the Trophy off the field and to their locker room. And shortly thereafter, they got on the bus after the celebration to return the gold ball to where it is supposed to be. They stopped for a quick bite to eat and then came back to Lake County. They brought the ball to their family and fans. They brought the ball back to miles long caravans of police and fire sirens and honking horns from the county line, through Ridgely and Wynnburg and finished at the Lake County High School. They won the State Championship and then they brought the Championship Trophy home.
Coach Puckett told the players in the locker room before the game that they had already won the game, they just needed to go play. They had won the game in the weight room and by being prepared. They did it their way with hard work and they did it with character.
These players were champions before the game started. They were already winners.
The Lake County Falcons won the TSSAA 1A State Championship. They played the perfect season. They are undefeated at 15 – 0.