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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Red Bank's Delmontae Gustus, left, and Cam Bell get ready for the next play during a home game against Ooltewah on Aug. 27. The Lions won their region despite having to forfeit a game due to COVID-19.

For more than 50 years, the one guarantee under the TSSAA football playoff format was the "survive and advance" mantra. Since the playoffs were introduced, polls and opinions were insignificant. Once a team qualified for its classification's bracket, the only thing that mattered each week was the final tally on the scoreboard.

With the threat of COVID-19 hanging over this year's brackets, there are no more guarantees.

Howard's football team was the first to learn that the hard way earlier this week. It won't be the last. Because of a player who had tested positive for the coronavirus, the Hustlin' Tigers were placed under a 14-day quarantine last week, which extended past this coming weekend and meant they would not be able to play their first-round game Friday.

Veteran Howard coach John Starr has given his share of season-ending speeches to his teams during his 35-year career. The difference in this one was that rather than delivering it after a tough postseason loss on a field where he could put his arm around each kid to console him, he instead had to confirm the season had ended over the phone.

"I definitely feel for our seniors for having the season end so abruptly," Starr said. "That was really tough. We're still trying to make sense of it ourselves. Honestly, I'm just thankful our kids got to play as long as they did this season.

"My biggest thing this year was just to be safe. You don't want them to take anything back to their grandparents or older family that could hurt them. I would rather miss a playoff game than to miss a loved one."

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Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / Howard football coach John Starr's team qualified for the TSSAA Class 4A playoffs this season, but the Hustlin' Tigers are under a COVID-19 quarantine and were forced to forfeit to Greeneville.

Soon after that news came word that Meigs County's first-round opponent, Cosby, would also be forfeiting due to COVID-19, giving the second-ranked Tigers a bye into the second round.

Across the state, at least 190 COVID-19 wins were awarded during the regular season in instances when one team could not play a scheduled game, and TSSAA staff members made nearly 750 schedule changes since July 30.

For many teams around the state, the thought of having the season end because of a COVID-19 forfeiture is more worrisome than the concern of losing on the field, where at least players have the chance to compete.

The burden of uneasiness is especially high for the eight Hamilton County teams that must follow much stricter protocols than neighboring counties. The policy for Hamilton County teams is that if one player tests positive for the coronavirus, the entire team must quarantine for 14 days. In the playoffs, that would mean a positive COVID-19 test would end a team's season.

"It definitely adds more stress for the coaches and kids," East Hamilton coach Grant Reynolds said. "There's nothing you can do about it, but it's frustrating to think about because you understand the finality of what being quarantined now would mean to a team.

"We talk to our guys all the time about taking care of ourselves, staying away from crowds, wearing a mask and washing your hands to keep the risk of losing our season down."

For the first time in his 33-year coaching career, Reynolds also made the decision to cut 33 freshmen loose after the regular season ended simply to reduce the risk of having a positive test on the team by having fewer players.

"I hated to do it, but under the circumstance everyone understood the reasoning," Reynolds explained. "It was a gut-wrenching decision but from the standpoint of travel and being able to keep the team spread out in the locker room, we felt like we had to do that. It's to protect the season for the seniors and older players."

Rather than quarantining an entire team for having one player who tests positive, neighboring counties Bledsoe, Bradley, Marion, McMinn, Meigs and Rhea all have similar protocols that follow the guidelines set by the Tennessee Department of Health — contact trace anyone who was within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes of the person who tests positive.

What that allows is for the players who were not in contact with the person who tests positive to continue competing, which doesn't punish an entire team.

"I wouldn't want to be in those Hamilton County teams' shoes," Rhea County coach Mark Pemberton said. "I feel for those coaches having to deal with that type of stress. You already know every game could be your last, so you practice and prepare for that, but to be told your season is over without getting the chance to decide it on the field is a brutal situation."

Besides cleaning and disinfecting more often, most teams in those rural counties have set up their practice and workout schedules so that players are split into small groups and do not come into contact with one another for more than 15 minutes. Also, locker rooms are either divided (South Pittsburg's players dress each day in three separate locker rooms) or players get ready in shifts (Meigs County's team dresses in small groups to allow distance, and they are under a time limit to get ready and exit the fieldhouse). Players are also spread out on buses for road trips, and individual water bottles are used.

"The fact is we all know the season is going to end at some point," McMinn County coach Bo Cagle said. "Very few win a championship, so the chances are slim that you're going to finish the season with a win. But to have the rug pulled out from under you would be really tough to deal with.

"The anxiety every day will be awful for those guys in Hamilton County, because at least we have some rules in place to where one positive test won't cost us the season. That's a huge relief. The objective is to be on the field to compete and try to win it, so I'm glad our system is doing everything we can just to get to the finish line."

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Times Free Press sports editor Stephen Hargis

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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