For the third time in the last dozen years local veteran football official Craig Phillips will be on the field when a state championship is decided Saturday.
Phillips will head the crew that will be at Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium to officiate the TSSAA Class 4A title game between unbeaten Covington (14-0) and Knoxville Fulton (12-2), which will kick off at 4 p.m.
“This is a big honor,” commented Phillips, who is the assignor for the Athens Football Officials Association. “Getting to call a state championship game is very humbling. The game belongs to the players and the schools, but without the officials, it would just be a recess game.”
While the spotlight will shine bright on the men in stripes with so much on the line, Phillips feels confident in his crew.
“These guys have been chosen from several of our (Athens association) crews, but we’ve worked together in three games in preparation for this (the state title game),” Phillips explained. “These things are worked out far in advance to get the right crews on the field for the state championships.”
The all-star group called their first game together last year in a state semifinal playoff game. This season they came together to officiate the Bradley Central-Cleveland game at Bear Stadium, where they were observed firsthand by state executive director of officiating Richard McWhirter. The group also traveled together to upper East Tennessee for the Class 3A third-round playoff battle between archrivals Sullivan South and Elizabethton.
“We have a good feel for each other,” Phillips expressed. “We have worked together enough to know where each other is going to be on each play.”
The lone member of the crew from Cleveland, Phillips will wear the “white cap” as the referee, while Grant Farmer from Riceville will be the head lineman.
Loudon’s Bennie Houser will be the umpire, while David Viar, from Sweetwater, will be the line judge.
Brandon Kirkland, the head basketball coach at Lenoir City, will be the back judge. Don Cheek of Etowah will be the official clock operator.
“It will be the first state championship game for three of the guys, but the others have done at least one,” stated Phillips.
As for Phillips, he was the referee in the 2008 Class 1A state championship game between Trousdale County and Jo Byrns, plus was the head lineman in 2001 when Battle Ground Academy and Briarcrest battled for a Division II state title.
Officiating for 22 years, Phillips started heading up his own crew in 2005 after the passing of longtime friend Frank Hammons Jr. “Frank was our crew chief and after he passed away they asked me to take over the (officiating) crew. Frank was a great man to work with and I learned a lot from him.”
While Phillips will be the only Bradley County official on the playing field, three others will be on the sideline.
“Joe Wilson will be there, serving as our alternate referee,” Phillips explained. “Joe will have a crew calling in next year’s state finals. They have you serve as an alternate the year before you call your own game.”
Cleveland’s Steve Richardson and Casey Wanat will work the game as part of the chain crew, along with Chris Morrow from Ooltewah and Brian Frye of Tellico Plains.
“Joe will step in if something happens to me and I can’t continue the game, but if something happens to one of the other members of the crew, we’ll pull one of the guys off the chain gang,” Phillips related.
The TSSAA state championship games began last night with undefeated Ensworth (13-0) winning their third straight Division II AA title by a 31-14 margin over Memphis University School (10-3), while Knox Webb (11-1) won its third Division II A state crown in four years by a 47-14 tally over Evangelical Christian School (6-7).
A trio of Division I titles will be decided today with Huntingdon (12-2) taking on Gordonsville (13-1) for the 1A crown at noon, CAK (13-1) battling Milan (12-2) at 4 for the 3A title and Columbia (12-2) and Hendersonville Beech (14-0) tangling for the 5A trophy at 8.
Saturday’s action will also kick off at noon with Adamsville (12-1) taking on Friendship Christian (12-1), squaring off in the 2A game, followed by Phillips’ crew game between Covington and Fulton. A battle of unbeatens will cap the three-day festivities as Maryville (14-0) goes for a 10th title since the turn of the century against Whitehaven (14-0) in the Class 6A tussle at 8 p.m.