One of the biggest obstacles left to clear for Hixson's football team is one that coach Jason Fitzgerald never believed he would have to deal with in his first season. With just three regular-season games remaining, Fitzgerald finds himself talking to the Wildcats about overconfidence.
"I never could've dreamed we would be talking to the kids about guarding against being overconfident," Fitzgerald said. "Not in our first year, but that tells you how far this team has come, how hard the kids and coaching staff have worked to get us here."
After taking over a program that had not won more than four games in six years, Fitzgerald has guided the Wildcats to a 4-3 record that includes fourth-quarter rallies to beat Marion County, Red Bank for the first time in eight years and state-ranked Tyner for the first time in 21 years.
Hixson's three remaining opponents — East Ridge, Brainerd, Central — are each 1-6, and the Wildcats need just two wins to wrap up second place in District 6-AA and assure themselves of a playoff berth.
Hixson hasn't won more than six games in a season since 1998, which also was the last season it finished higher than third in its district.
Fitzgerald sat his players down for a heart-to-heart in the locker room when they returned from last week's lopsided loss to Class 4A's fourth-ranked East Hamilton.
"I told them that nobody is going to feel sorry for us the rest of the way," Fitzgerald said. "It's up to us now to get ready to play and take care of business. A big goal is still there for us to accomplish."
The regular season in Tennessee wraps up the Friday before Halloween, and whether it's a district championship, playoff seeding or simply earning a postseason berth, there is still much to be decided in the final three weeks for area teams.
Red Bank would be in the playoffs as of now, but with a 3-4 overall record the Lions likely will need to beat Howard tonight and then either East Hamilton or Tyner the next two weeks to ensure a postseason spot.
Two other area first-year coaches -- Marion County's Mac McCurry and Notre Dame's Charles Fant -- have their teams poised for returns to the playoffs, and each is in line for a surprising eight-win season and the right to host a first-round game in Class 2A and 4A, respectively.
After losing three of its first four games this season, Signal Mountain has righted itself with four straight wins and is in line to claim the 7-AA title and likely play at home in the first round.
Because of injuries, Ooltewah has yet to hit its stride. The Owls (5-3) proved how dangerous they can be when healthy by handing East Hamilton its only loss, and they notched their third straight win last week with an impressive defeat of Bradley Central. With a chance to get healthier during a bye week next Friday, the Owls need only to win at Rhea County tonight or at Walker Valley on Oct. 26 to assure themselves a return to the playoffs.
"We really don't talk about the playoffs right now," Ooltewah coach Shannon Williams said. "We just talk about learning how you have to play to win games in November. You have to come to practice with a focus and urgency every day at practice to be ready to go this time of year if you expect to keep playing.
"Effort isn't an issue for us. But playing hard doesn't equal playing well, and we've got to play well and execute. When we do those things, we're a pretty good team."
After Walker Valley won just three games the last three years combined, first-year Mustangs coach Glen Ryan has them in line for a playoff spot with a win over either Bradley Central tonight or at Rhea County or Ooltewah. Cleveland, also under a new head coach, could get back to the 5A playoffs, after missing out last year, by beating Soddy-Daisy, Bradley Central or Rhea County.
In 2A, Silverdale Baptist already has equaled the most wins in school history and could earn the right to host a first-round game by beating either Lookout Valley or Grace Academy to close out the regular season.
South Pittsburg is the first area team to secure a district championship, but the Pirates close the regular season with games against three state-ranked foes and could fall to the bottom half of its 1A playoff bracket. Also in 1A, Lookout Valley likely needs one more win to assure itself of a playoff spot for the seventh time in eight years, but its two opponents -- Silverdale and Copper Basin — are a combined 13-2. Similarly, Copper Basin, which is ranked No. 6 in 1A, still has Marion County (6-2) and 2A's top-ranked Boyd-Buchanan besides Lookout Valley remaining.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...