NOLENSVILLE – It was an ill wind that blew through Nolensville High School Friday night as defending Class 4A champions Elizabethton rolled up more than 500 yards of offense and ended the Knights season with a 56-21 win in the state semifinals.
The first 18 minutes set the stage for a long night in a rematch of last year's semifinal meeting that took place some 300 miles to the east. This time Elizabethton – riding a 28-game winning streak – traveled to Middle Tennessee. The Cyclones took the opening kick-off 75 yards in 11 plays, capped by a 9-yard fade from Bryson Rollins to Troy Parker Hughes for a 7-0 lead.
Both Rollins and Hughes are Tennessee Titans Mr. Football finalists in Class 4A.
The Knights hopes of answering early were crushed on an intentional grounding call when a Ryder Galardi pass sailed out of bounds. The controversial call forced Nolensville to punt and the Cyclones pounced, with Rollins pushing over from the 4-yard line barely 3 1/2 minutes later.
Nolensville fought back, moving from their own 19 to the Cyclones 23 before Galardi’s home-run ball was picked off by Cade Russell at the one. Two plays later, Hughes broke through the middle and raced 85 yards for his second touchdown, putting the Knights in a 21-0 hole they couldn’t dig out of at the 6:41 mark of the second quarter. But it wasn’t from a lack of trying.
Nolensville answered on their next possession when Galardi hit Parker Price with a 30-yard strike. Three plays later, Elizabethton countered with a 61-yard scoring toss from Rollins to Jake Roberts, sending the teams to the locker room with the Cyclones in front 28-7.
“They are a good team. We knew we had to play well to win,” said Nolensville coach Paul Derrick. “We had some chances, but we just couldn’t make enough plays to get the ballgame where we needed it to be for us to chance to win.”
“We started off slow all year and I knew it would bite us in the butt one of these games,” Knights sophomore running back Samson Johnson said after leading the Nolensville rushing attack with 73 yards on 18 carries and a score to open the second half.
Elizabethton stretched the lead to 42-14 as Rollins (2-yard run) and Hughes (12-yard run) both added scores in the third. Sophomore Nate Stephens sandwiched a pair of touchdowns runs (15 and 26 yards) around the final Knights score, a 20-yard run by Garaldi, in the fourth quarter.
Hughes and Rollins both had Mr. Football-quality nights. Hughes picked up 193 yards rushing on 14 carries and snagged four passes for 40 more, scoring three times. Rollins was near perfect in the air, hitting 9-of-10 for two touchdowns and rushing 10 times for 30 yards and two more scores.
Galardi finished the night throwing for 179 yards and a touchdown with a 14-of-22 performance. Price was his favorite target, snaring seven balls for 83 yards and a touchdown. Garaldi also rushed 12 times for 52 yards and a score. He finished the season with 1,987 yards passing.
Derrick took the loss hard as he watched his team break up from their last post-game huddle of the year.
“I just hurt for my kids," he said. "Our group really came together this year. Everything they had to deal with, from the pandemic to the way we had to train in the summer, no 7-on-7 … you just don’t know what kind of culture you’re going to come out with in the end.
“We’ve been a work in progress all year. For whatever reason, the last few weeks of the regular season something clicked, we came together and made a heck of a run. I couldn’t be prouder of them. They did everything we asked them to do, they stuck to the process, took the coaching and they made this run happen and I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
The contest marked the second time in as many years the Knights’ season has been ended by Elizabethton in the semifinals. It won’t happen a third time, as Nolensville is moving to Class 5A in 2021.
Johnson believes good things will happen next year.
“We had a lot of momentum coming into this game. We were doubted all year," he said. "Nobody thought we would beat DeKalb County; nobody thought we could Tullahoma, but we did. We’re moving to 5A next year and I feel like we can make a big run in 5A, too.”
Despite the loss, Derrick was still singing the praises of a team that some didn’t expect to get past the second round.
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“These kids gave us a lot of memories," he said. "They gave this school and the Town of Nolensville something to be excited about. The way this year has been it’s been hard to get excited about a lot of things.
“I’m fortunate to have the job I have. We get great support from the administration and the community. Hopefully when the sting wears off they can look back on this year and realize they did something really special.”
The Cyclones will face Haywood in the state championship Saturday morning in Cookeville. Haywood defeated Lexington 17-14 to advance to the title game.
Elizabethton 56, Nolensville 21, Class 4A Semifinal
EHS – 14 14 7 21 – 56
NHS – 0 7 7 7 – 21
1Q 6:52 E – Parker Hughes 7 pass from Bryson Rollins (Kick good);
1Q 1:06 E – Rollins 10 run (Kick good);
2Q 6:41 E Hughes 85 run (Kick good);
2Q 2:28 N – Parker Price 25 pass from Ryder Garaldi (Reese Miller kick);
3Q 7:17 N – Samson Johnson 4 run (Miller kick);
3Q 4:21 E – Rollins 10 run (Kick good);
4Q 11:54 E – Hughes 12 run (Kick good);
4Q 7:32 E – Nate Stephens 15 run (Kick good);
4Q 5:02 N – Galardi 20 run (Miller kick);
4Q 2:05 E – Stephens 21 run (Kick good).
EHS – 41-347 (Parker Hughes, 14-193; Nate Stephens 6-77; Bryson Rollins 10-30; Braden Holly 1-18; Cade Russell 7-17; Jake Roberts 2-6; Jonathan Morton 1-6). NHS – 31-125 (Samson Johnson 18-73; Ryder Galardi 12-52; Ben Coggin 1-0-0).
EHS – Bryson Rollins 9-10-0-2 for 155. NHS – Ryder Galardi 14-22-1-1 for 179.
EHS – 9-155 (Parker Hughes 4-40; Jake Roberts 4-108; Braden Holly 1-7-0). NHS – 14-179 (Parker Price 7-83; Ben Coggin 3-65; Brayden Rose 1-14; Colton Dobson 2-13; Samson Johnson 1-4).