ATHENS — Friday night’s loss in the opening round of the TSSAA playoffs not only brought a close to Bradley Central’s football season, it marked the end of line for strong high school careers of several players who have helped turn the Bear program around.
“This senior class has a lot to hold their heads up about,” declared head coach Damon Floyd Saturday. “Last night (Friday) was not indicative of the careers these seniors have had.”
The 42-22 loss to longtime rival McMinn County marks the third straight year Bradley has made the postseason, plus gives the 2013 graduates a 27-17 gridiron record.
While Bear quarterback Bryce Copeland was a four-year starter, four other seniors — Tennessee offensive lineman commitment Austin Sanders, safety Alex Hopkins, linebacker Nate Mills and defensive back/linebacker Robert Bartolameolli — have been key regulars for the last three seasons.
Copeland capped off one of the most prolific offensive career’s in Bradley history, posting 8,204 total yards and accounting for 85 touchdowns, both numbers are likely school records.
Taking over the starting job due to an injury early in his freshman season, the southpaw slinger from a long line of Bear athletes completed 480-of-820 (59 percent) passes for 6,474 yards, including 61 for scores. A dual threat as the team’s leading rusher this season, Copeland gained 1,730 yards and found paydirt 24 times on the ground.
While his total offensive stats are probable new school marks, he did established a new Southeast Tennessee passing mark the previous week, surpassing the 5,931 career numbers of former Rhea County standout Cameron Tallent (2007-10).
“Bryce is a winner,” proclaimed Floyd. “He came in as a freshman and gave us a chance to win for four years. He did whatever we needed him to do and did it well. He’s a tremendous athlete. One of the best to ever come through here.”
“I’m proud of all our seniors and what they’ve meant to our program,” praised Floyd. “We didn’t have as good a season as they deserved with having to deal with so many injuries, including several of them getting hurt.”
Bradley finishes the 2012 campaign with a 6-5 record, with all of its losses coming to teams that are still alive in the TSSAA playoffs — twice to District 5-AAA champ McMinn County (10-1), plus third-ranked East Hamilton (10-1), sixth-ranked Baylor (8-3) and district runner up Ooltewah (8-3).
“McMinn hasn’t lost a district game in two years,” remarked Floyd. “They were the better team than us (Friday night). We didn’t come out with any fire and they jumped on us early. We never quit and kept fighting to the end, but we just got into too big of a hole (trailing 23-0 before getting on the scoreboard midway through the second quarter).”
In a reverse of the previous Friday when the Bears raced out to a 21-0 advantage in the team’s first of two straight meetings, the Cherokees scored on three of their first four offensive possessions this time around, plus blocked a punt out fo the end zone for a safety and a 23-0 lead just 100 seconds into the second quarter.
The Bears were finally able to get some offense going early in the second frame when Copeland went 4-for-4 during an 11-play drive that covered 68 yards. He capped the march with an eight-yard toss to junior tight end Caleb Cain for the first of two scoring hookups between the pair on the evening.
After the teams traded punts on the next two series, McMinn was able to find the end zone one more time before the half with Kelvin Wells Jr. slicing his way in from 34 yards out for the second of his four scores in the contest to put the hosts up 29-7 at the half.
Bradley came out after the break with a 35-yard kickoff return by junior Logan Fetzner before driving the ball to the Cherokee 10. However, a penalty and a pair of incomplete passes turned the ball over the hosts.
Taking over on its own 11, McMinn was able to chew time off the clock with a 10-play march with Wells diving in from the 1 for the score.
The Bears added the next points to the scoreboard with a 96-yard drive that was aided by a pair of 15-yard flags on the Tribe, one of which resulted in a player ejection. Copeland and Cain teamed up on the 11th play of the march for a 22-yard TD toss with 5 1/2 minutes to go in the contest.
McMinn was able to answer with a seven-play scoring series capped by back-to-back 13-yard runs by Wells, who finished with 173 yards on 23 carries.
Not willing to surrender, the Bears came right back with Fetzner returning the ensuing kickoff 26 yards to near midfield before Copeland hit junior Baylor Terrell for 13 yards and junior Cal Pickel for 40, on a diving catch that came up just shy of the goal line.
Copeland did the honors for the final touchdown of his illustrious prep gridiron career. To put a little icing on the cake, Copeland hit fellow senior Deshawn McCleary with the two-point conversion pass with 1:57 remaining.
With the Bear defense able to force a quick three-and-out, Bradley had one more chance to score. Copeland hit Pickel for a 19-yard gain and sophomore DJ Moyse had the second longest Bear run from scrimmage at nine yards, plus forced to spike the ball on third down and an incomplete fourth down pass gave the ball back to the Tribe with just seconds left.
McMinn was able to put together 501 yards of offense on the night, with 394 of it coming on the ground, plus sophomore quarterback Corbin Powers completed 10-of-12 passes for 107 yards and a pair of touchdowns — 28 yards to Clay Bennett, plus 19 to Bryan Adams.
Bradley was held to just 55 rushing yards on 25 tries, while Copeland connected on 22-of-39 aerials for 193 yards. Pickel, junior Dee Crisp and Terrell pulled in five passes apiece for 85, 34 and 24 yards respectively. Cain had a trio of catches for 40 yards, including the two touchdown tosses.
The teams were flagged for 11 penalties apiece for a combined 206 yards.
McMinn County will be at home again this Friday with Riverdale (7-4) making the trip over from Murfreesboro after having knocked off District 12-AAA champion Cane Ridge 31-0 in the opening round.
Bradley will now await the new TSSAA redistricting announcement Nov. 15 before being able to fill out a schedule for the next two seasons.
“We’ll take a few weeks off and then get right back at it as soon at they (TSSAA) lets us,” declared Floyd. “We lose good players every year, but hopefully we have built a strong enough program for the next guys to step right in and take their place.”