From going on the road to hand Franklin its first loss of the season in a stunner to falling to Pisgah in a heartbreaker, this year’s Mountaineers’ season included highs, lows and everything in between.
Tuscola Head Coach Chris Brookshire said the leadership his team received from the seniors helped make sure they remained focused through it all en route to earning a state playoff berth for the first time since 2018.
“We just honestly had a great group of seniors that really bought into what we’re selling,” Brookshire said. “They’re going to definitely be missed around here, for sure.”
Although the 34-14 first round loss at Concord wasn’t the way anyone on the team wanted to go out, getting back in the playoffs was a meaningful accomplishment in itself.
“I just think we took a step in the right direction,” senior lineman Jacob Broom said. “I feel like what coach said is true, we set the stepping stool for years to come. We put Tuscola football back where it needed to be.”
Broom, a three-year starter on Tuscola’s O-line, earned unanimous all-conference honors from the Mountain Seven head coaches this year. Broom was a vocal leader and played a key role in helping the team’s young O-line group develop into one of the strongest in the conference.
“Those guys in there are my brothers,” Broom said. “I feel like when you spend more than half of your summer running around on a football field and working out when you could be out playing video games, you gotta be close,” Broom said.
Senior quarterback Jared Penland, also a unanimous all-conference selection, transferred to Tuscola from Erwin ahead of last season and said that closeness was shown to him from day one.
“The second I got here, it seemed like I’d been here my whole life,” Penland said. “Just the way everybody treats you in there, it’s not divided or anything like that. It’s one team for one goal and they’re all taking care of each other.”
Brookshire was thrilled with how tight-knit his team was this year and talked about how having such a close group of players is a sign that the culture of the program is in the right place.
That culture inside the locker room translated onto the field, especially during a four-game win streak that included the Franklin thriller and back-to-back shutouts against North and East Henderson.
The North Henderson win was especially meaningful because it was the first game since Brookshire’s mother, JoAnn, passed away. Every player on Tuscola’s roster attended the funeral.
“When he lost his mom it affected all of us, just to see him hurting like that hurt all of us,” Broom said.
About picking up the win that week, Broom said it simply needed to happen.
Coming into the Haywood County clash against Pisgah, the Mountaineers were riding that win streak, sat at 3-0 in conference play and were fresh off back-to-back shutouts.
Tuscola built a 20-7 lead by halftime and looked to have a good shot at snapping the eight-game losing streak against Pisgah.
After the Bears came back to take a 21-20 lead in the fourth quarter, the Mountaineers got the ball back and advanced into Pisgah territory with under a minute left looking to finish off a game-winning drive for the ages.
“You have a blown call that causes a big transition in the game with 42 seconds to go,” Brookshire said.
A helmet-to-helmet hit penalty was called on Tuscola receiver James Propest that backed up the Mountaineers 15 yards.
“James catches a great ball, turns, the Pisgah kid is lower than him, the Pisgah kid initiates contact,” Brookshire said. “Offensive players are taught to lower their head and run over people which is what every running back in that game did, both sides. Our kid turns and he starts lowering his body, their helmets never even hit.”
Brookshire said he had already called the next play which would’ve been on a first down inside the 10 yard line had the penalty been called against Pisgah like he initially thought.
Brookshire said Tuscola would’ve taken a shot on a fade route to 6-foot-3 receiver Bryant Oancea that could’ve given the Mountaineers a lead in the final seconds. He said if that pass didn’t get Tuscola a touchdown, he would’ve run the ball one more time before calling a timeout to set up a short field goal try if the run didn’t get into the end zone.
“You hate it when you see these kids put in that kind of time and it’s changed by one person who wasn’t ready for the moment, because we were,” Brookshire said. “I hate that because that’s something that’s going to live with me til next October. We’ll change it next October, I just wish it would’ve changed this October.”
Penland said he doesn’t care what he has to do to make it to the Pisgah game next year, he won’t miss it.
The following week featured a matchup against Smoky Mountain, who’s only conference loss was also to Pisgah, to determine second place in the Mountain Seven. The Mountaineers marched down the field to open the game before a fumble just before the goal line cost Tuscola a chance at an early lead.
After that drive, Tuscola struggled to regain momentum and trailed 21-7 at halftime, going on to lose 35-14. Brookshire said there was no doubt in his mind that the loss to Pisgah the week before impacted his team’s performance against the Mustangs.
The Mountaineers bounced back from the two straight losses to wrap up the regular season on a high note with a gritty 35-28 senior night victory against West Henderson.
Although Brookshire doesn’t believe the first round exit from the playoffs was an accurate representation of how good the team was capable of playing, he said he wouldn’t trade any of the moments for anything.
Even though the seniors won’t take the field as players anymore, Broom knows no one will forget what it was like to be a Tuscola Mountaineer.
“Once you’re a part of it you’re always going to be a part of it, you don’t leave it,” Broom said. “That’s just what I love about Tuscola football. It’s tradition.”