Cinderella Stories

Teams That Came Out on Top – Despite the Odds

Cinderella story – noun – a person or thing that achieves unexpected or sudden success or recognition, especially after obscurity, neglect, or misery.


The Scenic City is full of hardworking athletes – individuals and teams who put in grueling hours on and off the field for their chance to lay claim to the season’s top title. Through determination and grit (and maybe a little luck) emerge countless stories of teams that were never expected to persevere, but despite the odds, came out on top. Here, we share a few memorable tales from teams that dug deep and discovered exactly what they were made of.

By Christina Cannon

Photos Courtesy of Robert Akins


Boyd Buchanan’s Journey to the 1996 Playoffs

To appreciate the well-earned 1996 season for the Boyd Buchanan Buccaneers, you must first understand where the team came from.

Both 1992 and 1993 only saw one win, and the following two seasons weren’t much better, with just two wins each year. In fact, in 1993, there were five games where the Buccaneers didn’t even score a single point, and by the time 1995 had come and gone, the team had more 0-10 seasons than winning ones in school history. 

Enter coach Robert Akins, who made it his mission to turn the program around. Through long hours and tough practices, he was determined to equip his players with the skills and the fortitude that they would need to become winners. 

“We had 28 players on this football team who were as scrappy as any group I have ever had,” says Akins. “Over the summer, we went to a camp in Cleveland, and they worked their tails off. We also participated in a scrimmage, and they did very well. I think the kids saw from what we had done that we could have a very good team.”

As the hot summer months drew to an end, the Buccaneers set out with a championship season on their minds and in their hearts. The first game was a success, and Boyd defeated the Sunbright Tigers 41-15. But perhaps it was just a fluke? The real test would come in game two, where the Buccaneers were slated to go helmet-to-helmet with No. 1 South Pittsburg – a team that had made a playoff appearance every year since 1989. In a turn of events no one saw coming, Boyd walked away that night with yet another win, having defeated South Pittsburg 16-7.

“This bunch went in full gear for every practice and every game during the season because they wanted to have a great year,” adds Akins. 

And it showed. Week after week the team came out and gave it all they had, and week after week a W was scribbled into the scorebook. By the time the regular season was over, Boyd Buchanan was an undefeated team – and a high-scoring one at that. Out of the 10 games of the season, the Buccaneers had scored more than 40 points in five of them, which was a far cry from all the non-scoring games the team was reluctantly part of over the last eight years. 

The team headed off to the playoffs for a matchup against Coalfield and came out victorious with a 10-7 win, but in round two of the playoffs it was the Buccaneers who scored seven points while their opponent, BGA, pulled away with 21. Nonetheless, an 11-1 season was one the team would gladly take, and it created a fresh foundation for the program’s future years. 

“The team of 1996 was such an amazing group of kids,” says Akins. “They were dedicated to turning our program around, and for that I’m thankful.”

Photos Courtesy of Baylor


Baylor’s 1995 Defeat of the Riverdale Champions 

At the start of the ‘90s, most everyone who was keeping up with the Baylor Red Raiders would agree that the team wasn’t anything to write home about. The years leading up to 1990 saw average performance, and the team typically ended their season with about half wins and half losses. 

The season of 1990 concluded with a 6-4 record, and the Red Raiders were ready for something new. After a summer of hard work, the team came out in ‘91 and won eight out of its 10 regular season games. They even made it to the third round of the playoffs, where they lost to Knoxville Central. For the next two years, Baylor performed much of the same, winning eight out of 10 regular season games and losing the first playoff game.  

In 1994, head coach of six years Fred Hubbs stepped down, making way for Ralph Potter. Like many programs, the first year with a new coach is just as much about learning everyone’s strengths and weaknesses as it is about winning games. Despite making it to the first round of the playoffs yet again, the Red Raiders went 5-6 that year. 

With a year of trial and error under their belts, coach Potter and his team came out in 1995 with an appetite to win. The first game was a success, and Baylor held Hixson to eight points while they managed to put up 35. The next two games, by contrast, were not victorious. 

“We had a good veteran team returning in 1995, but our schedule was brutal early in the year,” says Potter. “In successive weeks, we played several teams that had won state championships in recent years under some great coaches, but our guys kept fighting.”

The Red Raiders seemed to be losing steam, but this was no time to waver. Their next game was against Riverdale, who held the previous season’s title. Not only did Riverdale win the 1994 championship, they also made it to the championship game in 1993 and were in the playoffs the two years before that. At the time Riverdale and Baylor were scheduled to meet, Riverdale had won 19 straight games. 

Beating such a powerhouse team seemed like a pipe dream for the Red Raiders, but coach Potter hadn’t taught his players to give up. Baylor came out that night and gave it their all. And it worked. By the end of the night, the Red Raiders had pulled away from the Warriors and finally put an end to their winning streak. 

“I remember as we began to take control in the second half, recent Riverdale alums came out of the stands on to the sideline to urge their team to keep the streak alive, but it didn’t quite work,” recalls Potter.

The 21-7 game gave the Baylor players the momentum they needed, and the team ended up winning their next four games and even advanced to the third round of the playoffs. While there were a few losses scattered throughout the 1995 season, the win against Riverdale was one for the ages and one that no one saw coming.

Brainerd’s Back-to-Back Undefeated Seasons of the 60s 

If you were to ask someone what Brainerd High School’s football team was like in 1960, they’d tell you it was nonexistent. But where there’s a will there’s a way, and by the following year, a team had banded together and was ready to take to the gridiron. 

Under the leadership of head coach Ray Coleman, the Brainerd Rebels (now known as the Panthers), though new to the scene, were comprised of all juniors. The discipline that comes with a cohort of upperclassmen was paired with an insatiable desire to win, and it was that attitude that carried the Rebels all the way to the end of the season, where they surprised everyone with their record of 10 wins and one tie. For this impressive team, the cherry on top of an undefeated season was their bowl game in Spring City, Tennessee, where they won the game against Rockwood by one touchdown.

“We had three great coaches who really impacted not only the program that year but our lives,” says tight and defensive end DeWayne McCamish. “They taught us much more than football – they taught us discipline.” 

The fall of 1962 rolled around, and the players on the field were another year older and another year wiser. The season kicked off in August, and the Rebels shut out Marion County 20-0. This game set the stage, and the momentum allowed Brainerd to finish the season with 10 straight wins – including five games where the team’s top-notch defense didn’t allow the opponent to get even one point on the board. 

After another undefeated rival, Chattanooga Central, refused to match up with the Rebels for a bowl game, Brainerd made the trek to Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville to play Madison. Although not necessarily a walk in the park, Brainerd still came out on top, defeating Madison 13-7 in what is sure to be a memorable season (or two) for the class of ‘63. 

“Every player on our team had so much spirit and was always striving to be the very best they could be both individually and as a team member. We never quit fighting to reach our goals,” says McCamish. “Our coaches were tough on conditioning and execution, but no one on the team ever doubted how much they cared for each of us.”

Photos Courtesy of John Mullin


Notre Dame’s 2004 Springboard Into an Undefeated Season

Around the turn of the century, Notre Dame was a middle-of-the-road team. They weren’t losing all of their games, but they weren’t winning them either. In 2003, the Fighting Irish saw their worst season since 1992 with only one win – a 28-10 game against Lookout Valley. Of their 10 regular season games, six of them stayed in the single digits, if there were even points at all. 

“I won’t lie, 2003 was a rough year, but we could see a light at the end of the tunnel. We only had four seniors who played a lot graduate from the program, and our 2004 team was going to have a decent amount of juniors,” says Charlie Wiggins, Notre Dame’s head coach at the time. “I felt bad for that 2003 group because they did everything in their power to have a winning season, but it just didn’t happen. I firmly believed, however, that we were headed in the right direction.”

The following year saw a marked improvement, and Wiggins led the team to an 8-4 winning season. Perhaps the greatest moment the Fighting Irish experienced that season was beating the No. 1 undefeated Knoxville Catholic by one touchdown. 

“I remember spending a lot of time leading up to the Knoxville Catholic game practicing this one particular defensive play,” recalls Wiggins. “We came out and on the very first play, we intentionally jumped offsides. Their entire line got hit with eight of our players, and we wanted them to know that we weren’t messing around. It worked and got their players flustered while ours remained focused for the rest of the game.” Although the team lost their next and final game against Briarcrest, the win against Knoxville Catholic was the momentum the players needed. Now the team – and the community for that matter – knew that Notre Dame had what it took to go head-to-head with the top teams. 

But with an 8-4 season, there was still improvement to be had. Spring and summer training kicked into high gear, and when the 2005 season commenced that fall, the hard work the players had been putting in for months was evident. The Fighting Irish defeated one opponent after another, and by the time their season drew to a close, they were undefeated and had even shut their opponent out on four separate occasions. And they’d do it again. The following game, which was the first round of playoffs against Macon County, saw a score of 39-0. 

The team went on to defeat Pearl-Cohn 31-7 in the second round of playoffs and narrowly took the W in the quarterfinals against White House, where they came out on top by just one point. The next game wasn’t so lucky, and the Fighting Irish ended their season with a 14-point loss to Livingston Academy. Nonetheless, Notre Dame hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1995, and a 13-1 season, along with the chance to play in the semifinals, was a record they’d happily take. “We had some kids in the program go through hell for lack of better words, but they had a really good work ethic,” says Wiggins. “They exemplified leadership and selflessness and set a great example for the younger kids. To me, that is the most important thing, and those kids will always be with me.”

Photos Courtesy of Steve Beard


Tennessee Temple Academy’s Manpower Maneuver of 2005

Although it’s no longer a mainstay of the Chattanooga community, at one point in time, Tennessee Temple Academy was a powerhouse on the gridiron. The school, which served grades K-12, closed in the spring of 2011 due to low enrollment. The year it closed, total enrollment had declined to just 140 students across all grades. With such a low number of students, a lot of things were difficult, and putting together a football team was no exception. 

Nonetheless, in 2003 – a whopping 32 years after Tennessee Temple created its high school program – there was finally a team ready to take the field. Head coach Steve Beard set out and created a brand-new football program, and that year the Tennessee Temple Crusaders went 4-6.

“We were a pass first, run second kind of team, and we had some really skilled players in several key areas,” says Dan Wadley, the athletic director at the time. “That being said, we still had plenty of work to do. Our talent was really localized in certain positions, and we had to work hard for the victories we got.”

Having a year of trial and error under their belts, the players at Tennessee Temple used the off-season to nurture what worked well and fix what hadn’t. The start of the 2004 season wasn’t looking great with back-to-back losses, but the team dug deep and turned it around, winning each of their remaining games. In the matchup against King’s Academy, the Crusaders even set a new school record for the largest margin of victory by shutting out the Lions 52-0. The program wrapped up its second year with an 8-2 record, which signaled to past and future opponents that the Crusaders were not to be underestimated. 

The following year started in much of the same way, and the Crusaders came out and, once again, lost their first two games. Game No. 3 picked up a bit of steam and set Tennessee Temple on a four-game winning streak. From there, losses to Whitwell and South Pittsburg were recouped by two following wins against Copper Basin and Grace Baptist. 

Normally, a 6-5 season, although a winning one, wouldn’t necessarily warrant a celebration. However, other teams had performed so poorly that Tennessee Temple was on their way to the playoffs. Oh, and did we mention they did it with roughly 15 players? 

“Almost everyone on the team played both ways,” says Beard. “We had a lot of confidence in our offense, and it almost always came down to attrition. It was all about who could outlast the other team.”

While their stint in the playoffs stopped at round one by losing to Trousdale County, Tennessee Temple put forth extraordinary effort. In just three years, the school’s football program underwent a transformation that took them from inception to the playoffs. Pair that with the declining enrollment and a limited pool of players, and their trip to the playoffs was one that defied all expectations. And they would do it again. The following year, Tennessee Temple made it to round three of the playoffs, proving to all who witnessed it that hard work really does pay off. 

Photos Courtesy of Jeff Romero


McCallie’s Starter Suspension of 1982

Looking back at the fall of 1982, one might not be surprised that the Blue Tornado had an undefeated season. After all, the previous year saw a decent record of 8-2, and it wasn’t uncommon for McCallie to shut out opponents altogether – a feat that happened nine separate times between the 1981 and 1982 seasons. But there’s one game in particular in which McCallie was able to come out victorious despite the odds.

It was a few weeks before the end of the season, and McCallie had just come off of a 35-6 win against Ooltewah. McCallie had now won all eight games of the season, and next up was Baylor. The rivalry between McCallie and Baylor is one that stems back to 1908, and this was not a game to be taken lightly. While some players went through the next week focused on winning the big game, the revelry was about to result in a less-than-favorable outcome for others. 

Pete Potter, who was entering his 10th year as head coach for the Blue Tornado, had recently learned about a handful of players who had violated team rules the previous weekend, and now he had a big decision to make – show up on the field without eight of his best players (including the quarterback and six other starters), or continue to build a program that prioritized self-discipline and honesty. But coach Potter didn’t miss a beat. Despite the objection of several parents, he decided to suspend the players for the Baylor game. 

“After my father heard about the weekend’s activities, he dismissed those players from the team even though it really broke his heart to do it,” says Pete’s son Ralph Potter. “He truly believed that more harm would have come to them morally if he didn’t make that decision, and the rest of the team would have suffered as well.”

With support from headmaster Spencer McCallie III, coach Potter sidelined the players and took to the gridiron with several assets missing. Nonetheless, defensive back Peter Hunt returned a short punt deep into Baylor territory that allowed the Blue Tornado to kick a field goal and walk away with a win. While not the highest-scoring game, with its final score ringing in at 3-0, the McCallie vs. Baylor game was one to be celebrated by those who did play that night in 1982. McCallie then went on to win their final game of the season 49-0 against Riverside before losing to Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs. 

Photos Courtesy of Jay Poag


Christian Heritage’s Turning Tide of 2016

Year in and year out, the Christian Heritage football program faces a schedule that tests the team’s skills, commitment, and determination. As one of the smallest schools that plays in the Georgia High School Association (GHSA), the matchups on the field can often be skewed.

“We have roughly 180 students spanning four grades, and every single year, we are either the smallest or second-to-smallest school in the entire state of Georgia that plays in the GHSA,” explains head coach Jay Poag. “We play in a region where the other schools have two to three times our student enrollment, and sometimes we play out-of-region teams that are more than 10 times our size.”

In 2016, Christian Heritage – a school where size already was not in its favor – saw a major upheaval that left the team in shambles. With 10 players transferring out in one year, Poag and his colleagues weren’t even sure if there was going to be a program. 

“We had 13 seniors who chose to stick it out, and we only had 24 players on the roster,” adds Poag. “It wasn’t good, and we went 1-9 that year basically just trying to survive.”

With every game turning into a running clock situation, the Christian Heritage Lions were down on their luck. Still, those 13 seniors showed up every game and gave it their all, showing the younger players that effort builds character. With the graduation of the seniors, the Lions were now an extremely young team comprised of almost exclusively freshmen and sophomores. 

“They had to play. They were all we had,” says Poag. “They were so small and outmatched, but they all bought into the notion of ‘practice matters,’ and it really made a difference.”

That season, the Lions went 2-8, but each game saw a performance that was a little better than the one before it. Out of the last three games of the season, the Lions won two, and it was as if you could feel a tide turning. 

By the fall of 2018, the Christian Heritage team had played
together for an entire year and had the off-season to really focus on turning the program around. They went 7-4 that year and even hosted their very first playoff game. 

“One of the most memorable games of the year was our matchup against LaFayette. At halftime we were down 26-0, and we had been outgained 312 yards to -3,” recalls Poag. “Our kids didn’t panic in that halftime locker room, and they came out and put points on the board and held LaFayette. It was a huge win for us – 35-26 – against a team that was 10 times our size.”

But this Cinderella story doesn’t stop there. The following year bolstered a team that was stronger, wiser, and definitely more confident. That confidence led the Lions to a 9-2 season, and they even made it to the regional championship, although they narrowly lost to Darlington in the final minute of the game. 

Having tasted victory, no matter how fleeting, the team set out to not just make it to a championship game, but to win one. Despite the uncertainty that came with playing a season of football during a global pandemic, the Lions dominated in 2020.

“We had a winning season despite all the COVID-19 distractions. We lost players and coaches at times to quarantine, but we just kept on plugging,” says Poag. “After losing the season opener to top-ranked Fellowship Christian – a game that we led going into the fourth quarter – we rolled off 10 straight wins and won our very first regional championship! Those same kids who chose to ‘buy in’ when they were underclassmen had such a special season. They were rewarded with a region championship.”

That year, the team also hosted two playoff games, losing one only to be awarded a forfeit victory several weeks later due to a violation by the opposing team.

“Out of our school’s 40 seniors who graduated in 2021, we had 10 kids sign an athletic scholarship, six of which were for football,” says Poag. “Our theme for this coming year is, ‘New team, same dream,’ and we’re really excited. A culture has been created, and the standard has been set. It goes back to 13 seniors and a bunch of 8th and 9th graders several years ago who chose to stay and believe.”

Photos Courtesy of Herman Prater Jr.

Howard’s Historic Win Over Tyner’s 2019 Team

For The Howard School, 2019 was a pretty good year. The team went 7-4 – an improvement from the previous season’s 5-5 record – and they even made it to the first round of the playoffs. But it wasn’t the season total that had the Hustlin’ Tigers elated; it was their win over district 3 champion Tyner Academy. 

To provide some background, Howard’s football program was established in 1966, and out of the 26 times they had met the Tyner Rams on the field, they hadn’t won a single game. But this year was going to be different. Although they had lost their first game of the season to Stratford, Howard was coming off of back-to-back wins against Middle Tennessee Christian and rival Brainerd. Adding to the energy was the debut of Howard’s Reggie White Field, and the game against Tyner was only the second game played in the new stadium.

While the Hustlin’ Tigers were ready for another shot at finally winning this Friday night matchup, the city had other plans. A city-wide water main break meant the game was postponed until the following day, and the matchup was executed in 90-degree weather. 

Still, the Hustlin’ Tigers remained focus and showed up on Saturday with a top-notch defense. “We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game,” says James Talley, the assistant coach at the time. “Tyner had a pretty good team that year. They had a nationally-ranked receiver and one of the top quarterbacks in the area. Everyone had obviously picked Tyner, but we came out with a lot of energy that just couldn’t be matched.”

At that point in time, Tyner was known as a team that could put up points on almost any play, but Howard had a strategy for that – get to them before they saw it coming. And it was working. At halftime, Howard had held the Rams to -14 yards, and all five of Tyner’s ball carriers had negative yardage. But the domination didn’t stop there. Out of Tyner’s first six ball possessions, the Hustlin’ Tigers had forced a turnover on five of them. 

During the second half of the game, Howard came out and did much of the same, slowly but surely pulling away from the Rams. With just 1:28 on the clock, Howard defensive end Dicorius Knight returned a fumble 79 yards for a touchdown, sealing the deal. The 27-19 victory over Tyner wasn’t just another win. It was one that had been in the making since 1975, when the pair first met on the field.

“No one thought we were going to win. I mean, why would they? We never had before,” says Talley. “But we jumped out, and once the kids got a little momentum, there was no stopping them. They were gassed, but they gave it their all and never gave up. We always coached them to play as hard as they could until they heard the whistle, and that mentality ended up winning us the game.”