When things look the bleakest, successful teams look to successful leaders to help guide them through difficulty.
Such is the case with Maplewood High, whose Panthers have the ultimate leader in quarterback Chris Simpson, who will lead his team into some uncharted waters this week.
Bleak was the case early on when Maplewood trailed Hillsboro 14-0 midway through the first quarter in their Class 4A football matchup last Friday. At that point, it looked to be a Burro blowout.
But Simpson, who scored a second-quarter TD, fired a 9-yard TD strike to senior Tyrone Vanlier with 1:45 left for the winning score, sparking an 18-17 win at Hillsboro.
Maplewood had not beaten Hillsboro since they came into the same region four years ago and also lost to the Burros in the 2005 playoffs.
“It was a huge win,’’ said the soft-spoken Simpson, who is a finalist for the prestigious Hume Award. “We finally beat Hillsboro. It’s the greatest win we’ve had since I’ve been at Maplewood.
“But,’’ he quickly added, “we’re not done yet.’’
The next step in the wild Panther ride comes Friday when the Panthers (11-2) visit Paris, Tenn., for a semifinal date with Henry County (12-1), who scored a similar stunning upset win, 27-26 over Melrose.
Maplewood reached the semis once before in 1975 and was successful when the Preston Brown-led team beat Hamilton 45-7 in AAA. Head coach Ralph Thompson, 36, a former Hillwood High, Georgia and TSU standout, was 4-years-old at the time.
Maplewood then lost in the final to Oak Ridge. Simpson wants to carry his team further.
“I’m not leaving this school without a (championship) ring,’’ said Simpson, who has always played quarterback since he started football at age 9. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to win.’’
“Chris is definitely the straw that stirs our drink,’’ said Thompson, the sixth-year Panther coach, who has taken his team to the playoffs for the third straight year.
“He’s one guy we can’t do without,’’ he said. “No matter how down we get, won’t let us lose. He’s the steady rock we have, regardless of how badly things are going around us.
“He’s part of a group of our 12 seniors who went 0-7 on the freshman team. But that group was close. They have been able to see both ends of the spectrum. You can see the joy on their faces as we’ve kept winning.’’
One of the biggest plays Friday came when senior defensive end Dominique Howard picked up a Burro fumble and raced 35 yards for a score in the third quarter.
“I was surprised to see the ball, but I just picked it up and hoped I was fast enough to score,’’ he said. “It’s the biggest play I’ve ever made. It (Maplewood’s success) is amazing, we’re making history. Chris, myself and all the seniors are very close.’’
Perhaps Simpson’s best trait on the field is his elusiveness. Put simply, he’s like a water bug, very hard to tackle.
Asked how we was so elusive, he said, “I can’t say. I guess when I was young, playing in the backyard with my cousins and friends, I hated to get tackled, and I got away any way I could.’’
Asked about his college choice, Simpson said he was likely to sign with Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech or Samford, Ala.