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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Captains for the Marion County, left, and South Pittsburg football teams meet at midfield before their annual rivalry matchup on Sept. 2, 2016, at South Pittsburg's Beene Stadium. The Warriors and the Pirates have played since 1924, with the only breaks in their series occurring because of World War II and the threat of violence between the communities in 1954.

Long before it was medically recommended to do so, the residents of the neighboring towns of Jasper and South Pittsburg have socially distanced from one another — at least for one week each year when their proud high school football programs clash.

But while the two map-dot communities are close geographically — separated by an eight-mile stretch of Marion County highway — the folks who live there believe they are a world apart from each other in many ways, particularly when it comes to who has the upper hand in the state's second-oldest prep rivalry.

Something both sides can agree on, however, is that there has likely never been a more welcome renewal of the series than this season.

With the United States just past the six-month mark of businesses and schools across the country shutting down due to COVID-19 concerns, there was a long stretch when it appeared activities such as high school football would not happen this year. In rural areas, where Friday night games are as much of a community gathering as Sunday morning church services, the absence of matchups such as Marion County-South Pittsburg would have stung.

Rivalries are the lifeblood of sports, particularly at the high school level, and this is the first week this season when the Chattanooga area's football schedule includes the added excitement of having bitter rivals meet once again. The TSSAA guidelines — which recommend limiting crowd size, having fans maintain physical distance whenever possible and wearing masks — also serve as a reminder of just how close communities such as these came to losing an important part of their identity.

"I'm just so glad that the seniors will get to be a part of this rivalry one more time, because it's very special," South Pittsburg coach Vic Grider said. "Most people don't ever get to be a part of something like this.

"Six weeks ago, honestly, I didn't think this game would get played, but here we are. We're both 3-0 and they're coming in here with good reason to be confident, so that's created a lot of excitement and hype. After all the negativity we've all gone through, both communities are starved for something good to get to enjoy together. It's something both sides look forward to every year, and it's just really important to a lot of people in both towns."

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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / South Pittsburg's Jamal Allen (24) and Jared Stone, left, tackle Marion County's Jack Tillman for a loss during the bitter rivals' annual football matchup last Sept. 13 in Jasper, Tenn.

Pride on the line

This week's schedule is highlighted not only by the 96th edition of the Pirates versus the Warriors but also includes the first matchup between longtime powers McCallie and Georgia's Calhoun at Finley Stadium, as well as two of Hamilton County's top programs — East Hamilton at Red Bank in another battle of state-ranked teams. Outside the Chattanooga area, Alcoa visits Maryville in another neighborhood rivalry between Tennessee's most dominant championship programs.

Each week that follows will also offer more of the traditional rivalries — including Bradley Central at Cleveland and Baylor versus McCallie — in which the participants and supporters feel a sense of belonging to something uniquely their own.

The proximity and pride of the communities is what energizes the atmosphere of these games.

"This one means a lot," Marion junior running back Taye Hutchins said. "It's huge for the community here, and we've been looking forward to this pretty much all year. We were worried for a while that we wouldn't get to have a season, but we kept working hard to be ready, and really it's felt pretty normal when we're out there playing.

"We're just looking forward to being out on the field and hearing the crowd and the whole atmosphere for this one. It's going to be loud because everybody is excited."

The seating capacity for the home side at South Pittsburg's Beene Stadium is larger than the population of the entire town, and typically a game between two undefeated teams ranked in the top five of their classifications would bring in an overflow crowd. However, South Pittsburg administrators have said they will limit the number of tickets sold for the game to around 2,000 — or about one-third of stadium capacity. Grider said that will mean his program will make at least $14,000 less than what is typically generated from hosting the rivalry game.

"We've seen similar type willingness to limit the crowd size from most of our member schools," TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress said. "We understand that there is a much larger demand for tickets to the rivalry games, but we also know that the coaches and administrators are doing what they can to scale back the size of the crowd to allow fans to maintain social distance.

"We don't want a situation where a money game results in an increase in (COVID-19) cases. I think every school realizes we're not going to make much money based on what we're having to do this season. We're all just trying to get through this until we can catch up financially later, and the most important thing right now is to continue to work to do what is necessary to ensure that the entire season gets played for the kids."

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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / South Pittsburg football fans celebrate a Pirates touchdown during a home game against rival Marion County in September 2018.

Intensity remains

Marion and South Pittsburg have well-established statewide reputations built on the foundation of having more state championship game appearances, more titles, more playoff wins and more all-state players than any other area programs.

The teams have played since 1924, taking breaks only during World War II and again in 1954 because of the threat of violence between the towns.

In 2001 the game became so physical — a prison riot in cleats as described by one observer — that five players had to be taken away by ambulance.

For decades, Pirates fans have refused to call their adversaries by the school's official name, instead referring to them as "Jasper," and for several seasons players from both sides would walk halfway onto the field for the pregame coin toss, then turn their backs on each other, refusing to acknowledge the opposing side.

"It's definitely special to get to be a part of a game that means so much to so many people," said Dale Pruitt, who is in the first season of his second stint as head coach of the Warriors. "You've got people on both sides who are either related to or work with or go to church with people on the other side, and they know they're going to see those people every day and don't want to have to hear about losing this game for a whole year.

"Even with the chaos that's happened around us, we all understand that once we get out on the field, everything else gets blocked out and for a couple of hours people will have something to feel normal about."

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

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