By Steve Williams
Governor Bill Lee gave Tennessee high school football the “green light” to start practice on July 31.
A season that once seemed like it would never begin because of the coronavirus pandemic ended regular season play for Division I teams three months later on Oct. 30.
But it wasn’t without interruption or changes in schedule for many teams along the way.
In Week 1, five Knox County teams – Bearden, West, Powell, CAK and Karns – were sidelined or had their schedule altered by COVID-19.
Halls kicked off to visiting Gibbs on Thursday, Aug. 20, at 7:07 p.m., giving those two teams the distinction of being the first to play in Tennessee in 2020. When it was over, just getting to play the game was celebrated more than winning.
And how long the season would continue was still uncertain.
In fact, Halls’ season was halted two weeks later after its game at Clinton on Sept. 4. The Red Devils wouldn’t play again until hosting South-Doyle on Oct. 9 – over four weeks later.
The TSSAA reported 201 “COVID-19 wins” were awarded in instances where one team could not play a scheduled game due to the virus and the remaining team was not able to schedule a different opponent. That included 105 region games.
TSSAA staff members logged nearly 750 schedule changes going back to July 30. All changes to the schedules were monitored to track the games canceled, added or rescheduled over the previous three months.
At least 14 of the 20 football teams in The Focus’ coverage area had games affected by COVID-19 one way or the other during the regular season.
“We were not able to play two games this year due to COVID-19 restrictions and being on two-week quarantine,” said Austin-East Athletic Director Alvin Armstead. “Those two games were our Homecoming game versus Scott County (Oct. 2) and our Senior Night recognition and last home game versus Gatlinburg-Pittman (Oct. 9).”
Fulton was one of the last local teams that had to suspend football operations as its final games against West and Oak Ridge (Oct. 23 and 30) were cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns. The Falcons resumed workouts last Monday prior to the opening week of the TSSAA playoffs.
The post-season is underway now, but games could still be altered at anytime.
Travis Mozingo, whose CAK Warriors completed a 10-0 regular season and are state title hopefuls, deals with that feeling every day.
“Every time the assistant principal walks in my class room or knocks on the door or catches me in the cafeteria and says ‘hey’ (and motions his index figure in a come here motion), I think he’s going to tell me X, Y, or Z are all quarantined or contact traced.”
In the opening round of the playoffs Friday, six games were not played due to “COVID-19 cancellation” and six teams advanced to the second round as a result. One of those included Maryville getting a “win” over Science Hill. Greeneville and Meigs County also advanced this way.
All in all, East Tennessee has dealt with the pandemic better than any other area in the state as far as its prep football teams getting to play this season. You can see that by taking a look at the state’s playoff brackets, where there were many “byes” in the bottom half of the Class 5A and Class 6A brackets.
These empty slots were created by Memphis area teams predominantly that did not play this season. On one list I counted at least 35 schools that played three or fewer games, including Whitehaven, Kirby, Memphis Central, White Station, Southwind, Wooddale, Germantown and Fairley – teams that have good football programs. Some didn’t get to play at all.
Four weeks remain before nine state champions can hoist the gold football in the BlueCross Bowl at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville.
If the 2020 season indeed goes the distance, state championship seasons for those nine teams will be unforgettable in more ways than one.