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Staff photo by Stephen Hargis / South Pittsburg football players bow their heads in prayer before a recent playoff game. The Pirates are one of four area teams thankful to have the opportunity to continue competing in this year's TSSAA playoffs, with the coronavirus pandemic's effect on the season adding more gratitude than usual to the opportunity to practice during Thanksgiving week.

The anxiety and frustration regarding Tennessee high school sports peaked in early July.

Having already watched the boys' and girls' basketball state tournaments as well as the entire spring sports schedule get wiped off the calendar by COVID-19, there was legitimate concern the pandemic would erase fall prep sports as well.

In the first week of July, the TSSAA Board of Control delayed a decision on whether to implement any of the four proposals that would outline how to plan for an abbreviated fall sports season — one of which included eliminating the football playoffs and playing only a shortened regular season.

By late July there was still no decision and no direction for the season as Tennessee became the only state in the South without a plan. The uncertainty weighed on everyone involved in athletics, but especially the senior student-athletes who understood they were facing the possibility of losing the chance to suit up with teammates and play even one more game.

"I worried about it a lot because this was the year our whole senior class had been working for," said South Pittsburg running back Hunter Frame, who has posted a career-best season that includes 1,674 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns and has made him one of three Tennessee Titans Mr. Football finalists for Class 1A.

"We knew we had a good shot to win a state championship, which has always been our dream, and for some of us we needed our senior year to prove to college coaches that we can play at the next level."

Just three days before the calendar flipped to August, Gov. Bill Lee granted an exemption to the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association to allow high school teams to begin the rapid process of conditioning to prepare for their seasons, which in the case of football would kick off on time after all.

"I think we all kind of played every game as hard as we could because we didn't know if it would be the last one," Frame said. "I kept thinking we were going to get cheated out of getting the chance to do any of that right up until we were on the field for the first game. I've still worried that we could get it taken away until we step out on the field for every game."

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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Meigs County football players Noah Powers (28), Logan Carroll (2) and Hunter Brown (60) wave flags as they prepare to lead the Tigers onto the field for last week's TSSAA Class 2A state quarterfinal against South Greene in Decatur, Tenn. The host Tigers won in convincing fashion to reach the semifinals for the third year in a row.

Although the season's journey for TSSAA fall sports teams has been like no other before it — there were certainly potholes and detours along the way — cross country, girls' soccer, golf and volleyball were completed with state champions crowned, and now four Chattanooga-area football teams still have legitimate hopes of earning their own state titles.

Considering the amount of uncertainty prep sports faced just four months ago, to have reached this point of the season is one more thing to be grateful for this time of year.

"It's every coach's goal to have his team practicing during Thanksgiving week," said Meigs County coach Jason Fitzgerald, whose Tigers are playing in the Class 2A semifinals for the third year in a row. "We talked about it every week since the season started, just how thankful we were that we were getting to play another game.

"When you look back on where we were back in the summer, how far we've come during three months of the regular season and now three weeks of playoffs, it's really unbelievable that we've gotten this far. We're just thankful to the Lord that the kids got to have a season and we have a chance to play again this week."

Meigs County (13-0) is at Trousdale County (11-2), South Pittsburg (12-1) hosts Coalfield (12-0) and 3A's Red Bank (10-0) hosts Alcoa (12-1) in semifinal games Friday, while Division II-AAA's McCallie (8-3) will try to repeat as state champion when it takes on Memphis University School (10-2) in the BlueCross Bowl title game Dec. 3 at Tennessee Tech.

All four local teams remaining in the playoffs have lost the chance to play at least one game this season due to the coronavirus. McCallie had two planned games scrapped from its regular-season schedule, Red Bank and South Pittsburg each missed out on three — including a matchup between those two — and Meigs County advanced in the first round of the playoffs because its opponent had to forfeit due to COVID-19.

A total of 201 football games statewide have been canceled due to the coronavirus since the season began Aug. 20. That number includes games for about a dozen metro Nashville schools that didn't begin playing until midway through the regular season, as well as the 35 schools in Memphis that did not allow their football teams to compete at all this year. Although Chattanooga-area teams managed to complete a full regular season, three (Chattanooga Christian, Howard and McMinn County) had to forfeit playoff games due to the coronavirus, ending their season with an announcement rather than a title win or loss on the field.

All of which is not lost on the remaining local teams.

"I just appreciate it so much every time our kids get to showcase their talent," Red Bank coach Chris Brown said. "I did not realize how mentally and physically tough and resilient our kids were until we went through all these setbacks. That's been on display every Friday night.

"We decided early on as a staff that we were going to live day to day and not worry about how long it might last. We got the most out of every practice and game, every opportunity we've had to be together as a team.

"I've never experienced this as a coach before, practicing during Thanksgiving week, and it's been everything it was made up to be. This whole season, and now the playoff run we've been on, is just another big thing that all of us are very thankful we got to experience together."

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

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Red Bank football players huddle around assistant coach Brad Cowell before their home game against Soddy-Daisy on Aug. 21.
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