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Staff Photo by Stephen Hargis

Ten trophies, the gold and silver ball hardware representing boys' and girls' basketball state champions and runners-up for the 2019-20 season, sit unclaimed atop a table inside the TSSAA office in Hermitage. Lined in two rows, each one is still covered by the packing paper they were shipped in, quiet reminders of a season that was cut short at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in late March.

As basketball and wrestling teams across Tennessee have begun practicing for their seasons, which are scheduled to begin on November 23, TSSAA officials and school administrators, as well as coaches and players, are keeping a watchful eye on the troublesome coronavirus numbers that have been spiking in sections throughout the state recently.

It seemed like a long shot in July, but high school football just completed its regular season and the playoffs will kick off on Friday. Likewise seasons have been completed for outdoor sports cross country, girls' soccer and golf, as well as fall's lone indoor sport — volleyball. However the combination of the growing number of cases statewide as well as the fact that basketball and wrestling are played indoors, and with the athletes in much closer quarters to one another, has begun to cloud whether those sports will be able to begin on time, or even be played at all without a vaccine being made available.

"Our staff has discussed it internally and right now we are still moving forward with those sports as planned," TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress said. "But honestly, we do not have a good feeling about the indoor sports at all. There is a huge concern over the number of cases going up and the idea of playing those indoor sports is giving us some sleepless nights.

"Seeing those trophies sitting on the table is a sad reminder of what we lost last season and we certainly don't want any of the student-athletes in our state to have to go through that again. Wrestling is probably the sport that has more obstacles than any of our sports simply because of the nature of the competition.

"But with both our winter indoor sports, the science and everything we'r being told by the medical professionals we're working with is that those closed-in environments can be super-spreader events for the virus because it can be spread so much faster with groups inside."

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Coronavirus concerns in wrestling, basketball seasons

The Chattanooga area has long been the standard for Tennessee prep wrestling with area programs accounting for 7 of the top 9 for most state championships won all-time and having produced 8 of the top 10 programs with the most individual champions.

Cleveland has claimed consecutive Class AAA team titles from 2018-20 and county rival Bradley Central won two straight before that. The Blue Raiders and Baylor swept both the dual and traditional titles in their respective classes last season.

One mid-state wrestling coach admitted earlier this week, "With the way things are trending right now, I don't see how we're going to get the season in."

However Bradley Central coach Ben Smith remains optimistic.

"I don't feel as much doom and gloom as some because the coaches in our area have a plan," said Smith, whose team finished fourth in Class AAA last season. "People have to understand that wrestling teams have dealt with health issues, whether it's the flu or skin issues, that other sports haven't for decades.

"The cleaning of the mats, using hand sanitizer and checking temperatures are all things we've done for years so we're just heightening that. We take breaks every 12 to 14 minutes to vent the room and wipe down the mats and we don't work out or practice in groups. There are some things that are inconvenient but we're trying to provide a way for these kids, especially the seniors, to have their season."

If the wrestling season does come about, it has already been determined that the state tournament will not be held at the Williamson County Ag and Expo Center because that facility is currently being used as a COVID-19 testing center and is scheduled to be used for vaccine distribution once one becomes available.

Middle Tennessee State University, which has been the host site for the boys' and girls' state basketball tournaments for decades, has agreed to host those events again in March, but as of now have said attendance will likely be cut back to one-tenth capacity (around 1,200 fans).

The volleyball state tournament, which was just completed, is typically held at MTSU but had some matches moved to Murfreesboro high schools Blackman and Siegel in order to spread the teams out.

"We understand the reasoning behind the limits and not being able to have our tournaments at some of the sites that have typically hosted," Childress said. "It's hard to find people willing to host tournaments at their facilities right now because of the issues with the number of people that attend."

The nine football state championship games, which will be held Dec. 3-5 at Tennessee Tech, will be limited to 5,000 fans and the stadium must be cleared after each game.

Hamilton County's coronavirus policy, which covers all sports, is more strict than neighboring county school systems. For all sports, if one team member tests positive for COVID-19 the entire team must halt all activities and quarantine for 14 days.

Hamilton County athletic director Brad Jackson admitted there have been concerns expressed by health department physicians the school system works with over the winter sports seasons.

"We had volleyball played inside, which is not too far off from basketball, and we didn't have many issues at all then," Jackson said. "There's no mandate that says kids have to wrestle or play basketball or any sport. Their families understand there is a risk and if they accept that and still pursue their sport then we will continue to move forward with the season for those sports.

"Right now we're monitoring the numbers, and if we notice a huge spike we will meet with our schools or the TSSAA to make a recommendation."

Scheduling is another issue for boys' and girls' basketball teams as well as wrestling programs. Many tournaments have already been canceled or are teetering on cancellation because of the concern over having an increased number of teams and players competing in the same facility.

With less than three weeks remaining before the scheduled season openers many area coaches have said that keeping their players focused amid the growing uncertainty is presenting another challenge.

"We keep up with the cases so we know it's a possibility that the season could be delayed or not played," said Cleveland boys' basketball coach Reggie Tucker, whose team was ranked No. 1 in AAA last season and favored to claim one of those gold ball trophies. "We are aware of what's going on so it's in the back of your mind, no question.

"But our approach has never changed. If the TSSAA notifies us we have to delay the season we'll handle it then. But for now I'm only worrying about what we have control over and that's getting a group of young players focused on the season. We're doing everything we can to keep our kids safe so they can go out and showcase their talent this season. The rest is out of our hands."

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

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