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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / McMinn head coach Bo Cagle tries to rally his offense. The McMinn County Cherokees hosted the Maryville Rebels in a battle of two top-five TSSAA football teams on October 23, 2020.

One of the best seasons in the history of McMinn County's football program came to an end Monday evening not on the field but through a decision handed down by the TSSAA.

McMinn County's Class 6A second round playoff game at Dobyns-Bennett was postponed last Friday evening, just before kickoff, when questions arose about a possible COVID-19 issue for the Cherokees.

After collecting information from both schools over the weekend, the TSSAA rendered its decision late Monday. In a letter from executive director Bernard Childress sent to both schools, the TSSAA was prepared to allow a make-up game to be played Tuesday, but due to the McMinn County Health Department being unable to provide information on whether the football team had followed proper contact tracing protocol, the game was cancelled and the Cherokees were forced to forfeit.

That moves Dobyns-Bennett into this week's quarterfinal round where it will travel to second-ranked and defending state champion Maryville.

Cherokees coach Bo Cagle said the team followed the same COVID-19 procedures in dealing with a positive case that have been used all season and did not understand what more could have been done.

"I hate this for our kids and community," McMinn County coach Bo Cagle said in a text. "The rules and protocols in McMinn County being used for exposure and quarantining all year for this situation were totally bypassed.

"New rules were evidently put into place for this situation and we have no idea why. I guess sports are a microcosm of life and it's not fair. The kids and our community are deeply saddened by the way all of this unfolded."

According to the TSSAA, the McMinn County student-athlete in question was taking virtual classes and was only at the school in the afternoons for football practice. The player felt ill at practice on Tuesday, November 10 and was sent home and had not been around any other teammates since that day. He underwent COVID-19 testing on Thursday and was informed he had a positive result.

A subsequent COVID antibody test returned with a negative result and the student-athlete's physician stated the previous positive result may have been a false positive. The player in question rode with his parents, separately from the team bus, to the game and did not eat pregame meal with his teammates.

Prior to arriving at the game the student-athlete was informed that he would not be allowed to participate in the game.

Under the McMinn County football team's COVID-19 protocols, the number of players in the weight room is limited and players are not allowed in groups for more than 30 seconds. No huddles are used, and drills and activities are conducted in a way to maintain social distancing. The player in question said that during the week's practices he was never within six feet of anyone for 15 minutes or more.

Based on those facts, the TSSAA was set to allow a make-up game to be played on Tuesday, November 17, provided the McMinn County Health Department could attest that the school had adequately performed the necessary contact tracing to ensure that no other players would need to be quarantined.

"Unfortunately, we did not receive the needed verification from the McMinn County Health Department," Childress wrote in his letter detailing reasons for the decision. "We therefore have no alternative but to call off the game and advance Dobyns-Bennett High School in the playoffs.

"We have all known that in the time of this pandemic, something like this could occur; but we are sorry the players from the two schools will not get to play this contest. We appreciate all the efforts that representatives from both schools made to get us all the information we needed or requested and to deal with this difficult situation."

The Cherokees, who finish with an overall record of 10-1, are the third Chattanooga-area team — joining Howard and Chattanooga Christian — that has had to forfeit a playoff game in the first two weeks of the postseason.

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

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