The Cleveland High School football players and coaches left Friday night's game thinking they were about to be left out of the playoffs after a 29-27 loss to underdog Rhea County.
They were wrong. But only temporarily.
The rug was pulled out from the Blue Raiders' Class 5A playoff dreams when the TSSAA made a computer error in the brackets. The Raiders found out Saturday morning during a playoff-bracket-unveiling show that they had been included. Nine hours later, they found out what they originally believed -- they were not.
"The kids went to bed Friday with a finality about themselves," Cleveland coach Ron Crawford said. "They knew that if we didn't get six wins, we weren't getting in. I didn't even watch the show Saturday, but then people started calling me and telling me we got in, and I wondered what I had missed.
"The coaching staff immediately started to work on things we needed to fix in the program. We thought we'd still have a chance to feel good about ourselves."
Sullivan South was placed in the spot that Cleveland briefly occupied, but Rebels fans were pleased only that they were finally included. That Quadrant 2 slot in the 5A bracket meant a trip to Columbia Central, which is 317 miles from Kingsport and the Sullivan South campus.
Sullivan South athletic director Anthony Richardson told TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress that the association needed to restructure the brackets, as his school had been projected to be in Quadrant 1. Childress replied that plugging the Rebels in for the Raiders kept other teams from being affected.
"I asked Bernard, 'What if Cleveland was going to play Memphis Melrose?'" Richardson said Monday. "He told me, 'You would have gone to Melrose.'
"My problem is that the state is assuming we're going to lose to Columbia. What if we win? I asked him, 'What if we win Friday?' He had to get off the phone and talk to his committee. He came back and told me we'd have to travel back to Middle Tennessee the following week."
When told of the change, Sullivan South turned down the invitation to Columbia, because of the distance involved. Richardson agreed only when the TSSAA promised to pay the Rebels' expenses as long as they're in the playoffs.
"We pointed out the mistake to the state in plenty of time, to where they could have corrected it all," Richardson said. "They could have got it right."
The Rebels are taking two busloads of students in addition to their players, coaches and cheerleaders -- all on the TSSAA's tab.
In the meanwhile, Cleveland is left to think about the what-ifs. Fans wondered out loud how the Blue Raiders were left out, despite wins over two District 5-AAA opponents that did make the postseason, Ooltewah and Walker Valley. Walker Valley's 5-5 mark equaled that of Cleveland, but the Mustangs had one more opponent with at least a .500 record than the Raiders did.
In the current playoff system, head-to-head has no bearing in determining wild-card spots.
Cleveland quarterback Austin Herink, who was on a visit to Auburn when he found out the news, said the team already has adopted a motto for 2013: "Leave no doubt."
"We should have taken care of business against Rhea County. If we did, it's not an issue," he said. "I just wish the state would come apologize to our team in person for the mistakes they made."
Said Crawford: "I'm not a blame guy. We had two opportunities to get a sixth win to ensure a spot in the playoffs, but we didn't take care of things on our end. If we beat a 1-8 Rhea County team, we're in. That falls on me that I didn't have the team prepared to play against a highly motivated opponent.
"It's the first time in 17 years that I haven't been in the playoffs. I'm now dressed and ready to get back to work, and I'm highly motivated to ensure that the heartbreak we felt, we don't feel again."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com or 423-757-6311. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/genehenleytfp.