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Welcome back to the Scenic City, high school sports fans.
From just before lunchtime Thursday through Saturday night, Chattanooga will be the official epicenter of the prep football world for the state of Tennessee.
The BlueCross Bowl - with three title games played each of the next three days at Finley Stadium - will bring tens of thousands of fans as well as millions of dollars into the city. It's also a chance to reintroduce much of the state to what makes Chattanooga so uniquely charming.
It was that charm and the local support for high school sports that served as the springboard for the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association to create the Spring Fling, which was held in Chattanooga from its beginning in 1993 until it moved to Memphis in 2003. Chattanooga has hosted other state championship tournaments - ranging from girls' soccer to wrestling - through the years, but after nurturing those into success, each eventually was moved to larger cities.
But now the Scenic City truly steps into the spotlight, becoming only the fourth city in the 39-year history of the event to do host the state's crown jewel of prep sports championships.
A process that began in earnest nine months ago, when Chattanooga was awarded the right to take over as host from Cookeville, reaches its payoff now. For the local economy, that could mean in excess of $3 million - the figure the Cookeville-Putnam County Visitors Bureau estimated for the past few years that city hosted the event.
Tim Morgan, chief officer of Chattanooga Sports, said an array of local business leaders, city officials and volunteers have all come together to help heighten the experience for incoming fans. That includes the First Horizon Pavilion, which will offer several food trucks, the BlueCross Blue Zone that features giveaways and other vendors, as well as the Body Armour experience, which has nearly 10 family-friendly fan experience exhibits, including football toss inflatables, extra-point kick competitions, multiple cornhole boards and live music.
The stage is set, and Morgan admitted the plan is to claim the event as Chattanooga's own far beyond the two-year agreement the city currently has with the TSSAA.
Beyond all the peripheral options surrounding Finley Stadium as folks make their way inside for the games, here are a few highlights to know and watch for this week.
- The most recent year a TSSAA football state title game was played here was 1978. Back then, four years before the the association moved all of its title games to one neutral site, competing schools hosted. Red Bank hosted Gallatin in the Class AAA game in '78, falling 42-13.
- The Chattanooga area has had a team play for a championship in nine straight seasons and 12 of 13. After going seven years without a champion in any class, the area has had a champ each of the past three seasons.
- McCallie could become the fourth program in the 25-year history of Division II to win three straight titles in the largest private school classification. The Blue Tornado (12-0) are also trying to complete only their second unbeaten championship season (2001 was the first) in program history.
- When South Pittsburg steps onto the Finley Stadium turf for Friday's Class 1A matchup with McKenzie, the Pirates will have played at all four state championship venues since the TSSAA consolidated its title games into one site in 1982. The Pirates won in 1994 and '99 at Vanderbilt's Dudley Field, in 2007 at Middle Tennessee State University's Floyd Stadium and in 2010 at Tennessee Tech's Tucker Stadium. Before that, they won the program's first title in 1969 at Nashville's Overton High School. Despite having one of the smallest enrollments among the state's football-playing schools, South Pittsburg is the only program in Tennessee - regardless of classification - to have played for a championship in all seven decades since the TSSAA implemented a playoff format.
- All three TSSAA football programs in Marion County - Marion, South Pittsburg and Whitwell - have played for a state championship at some point over the past six years, with at least one team from the county appearing in a title game in 11 of 14 seasons. It's the state's only county with at least three schools to have every team win at least one championship.
- No area public school has advanced past the semifinals in any classification above 2A since Red Bank won the 5A title in 2000; three local large-school programs have reached the semifinals but not advanced further. Meanwhile, area small schools have enjoyed much greater success, with five teams - Marion (2014-16), Signal Mountain (2010), South Pittsburg (2007, '09, '10, '11, '13, '20, '21), Tyner (2017) and Whitwell (2018) - having played for championships in 1A and 2A in the past decade-plus.
- Rhea County played three teams this year that are playing in championship games, losing in the regular season to Alcoa (3A) and Elizabethton (4A) and in the 5A quarterfinals to Powell.
- Alcoa (3A) is going for its seventh consecutive title and 20th in program history. The Tornadoes have played in nine straight BlueCross Bowls and have shut out their past two opponents in the title game. Alcoa's Gary Rankin is the state's all-time winningest coach with a 466-78 overall record that includes 16 championships - 12 with Alcoa and four with Murfreesboro's Riverdale.
- Hampton (2A), East Nashville (3A), Page (5A) and Tullahoma (4A) are making their state championship game debuts.
- Of the state's 30 Mr. Football finalists, half will be competing this week at Finley Stadium.
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.
Thursday’s TSSAA BlueCross Bowl at Finley Stadium
Division II-AACPA (11-2) vs. Lipscomb Academy (11-1), 11 a.m.Division II-ADCA (11-1) vs. Nashville Christian (11-2), 3 p.m.Division II-AAAMcCallie (12-0) vs. MBA (9-3), 7 p.m.