As with most things involving bitter rivals Marion County and South Pittsburg, even the potential for rescheduling this season's matchup has turned contentious.
After their game was canceled just hours before kickoff last Friday when Marion announced it had a player who had tested positive for COVID-19, a potential make-up date unexpectedly came open over the weekend. However when Marion administrators informed South Pittsburg on Monday that they were declining to reschedule, it didn't take long for word to spread through the small community and supporters on both sides spent much of the day flooding social media with antagonistic posts as Warriors fans argued that their cross-county rivals were being unreasonable while Pirates supporters accused Marion of simply wanting to dodge playing the game because South Pittsburg was favored.
By the end of the day South Pittsburg administrators admitted the situation had escalated to the point that they were considering ending the rivalry altogether and no longer scheduling Marion in any sport. The football contract ends after this season, so both teams would have to sign a new two-year agreement after this season to continue the rivalry.
"Does anybody think I wanted to load up on that bus five years ago with 29 players and only two seniors and go play a state championship caliber team?" said Pirates coach and athletic director Vic Grider, referring to the 2015 game in which Marion defeated his team by 41 points. "But I was man enough to go compete because what kind of message would that send to our kids if we didn't? I took the loss that night but on the bus ride home I made a vow that we would work to get better and make sure we never lost to them again and we haven't.
"We're certainly looking at whether we would continue to play them. It's a shame that such a great rivalry ends like this but we laid out a plan to work with them and make the game happen for the kids and both communities this season and they had no interest in doing that."
Since that Marion win five years ago the Pirates have won the four meetings that followed, including an upset when the Warriors were ranked No. 1 in 2016 and by an average of 54-10 the past three seasons.
Both teams came into last week unbeaten with South Pittsburg ranked No. 1 in Class 1A and Marion County ranked No. 5 in 2A. Hours before kickoff Grider was informed by school superintendent Mark Griffith that Marion had a player who had tested positive for COVID-19 and, per county health department regulations, would be unable to compete. Instead the entire Warriors team — players and coaches — were placed under quarantine for 14 days.
The game was given a potential window to be played, however, when on Saturday Grider was notified by Red Bank that their nonregion game scheduled for Sept. 25 was also being canceled due to a Lions player testing positive for the coronavirus. Realizing that his team suddenly had an open date on the same week that Marion County was already idle, Grider reached out to Warriors coach Dale Pruitt about rescheduling their game.
However, citing safety concerns, Marion County administrators notified South Pittsburg principal Tim Bible on Monday of their decision to decline the request to reschedule.
"The whole deal is the fact our kids are in the middle of a 14-day quarantine, where legally I can't even be around them," said Pruitt, who added that the student-athlete who had tested positive is recovering well. "We would come in on a Wednesday, after two weeks of not hitting, and try to get our kids ready in a short amount of time. That's a big deal. All you'd do then is just get them sore before you have to go play."
Grider contends that, knowing the Warriors would not return to practice until next Wednesday (Sept. 23) he offered to move the game to Saturday (Sept. 26) which would allow Marion enough time to prepare.
"Typically you get three days to practice and then a walk-through on the day before the game so they would have the same amount of time to be ready as any other week," Grider said. "They already had one game earlier this season (Aug. 27 vs. Sequatchie County) that they moved to Thursday because of bad weather, which meant they only had three days to prepare for that one too. Saying they have safety concerns doesn't add up since we offered to move the game back to give them the same number of days to prepare as any normal week."
The series began in 1924 and is the second-oldest in Tennessee — behind only the Harriman vs. Rockwood matchup that has been played since 1921. This season would have marked the 96th meeting with the series taking breaks only because of World War II and again in 1954 because of the threat of violence between the towns after South Pittsburg had claimed a 69-0 win the previous season.
The Pirates, who have won 12 of the last 14 on-field meetings, will officially be rewarded with a forfeit victory per the TSSAA's rules on cancelling a game due to COVID-19. They are currently looking to fill vacancies on their schedule for Sept. 25 and Oct. 2 before traveling to 2A's second-ranked Meigs County on Oct. 9.
"In a two-day period, with the cancellations by Jasper and Red Bank, we've lost at least $40,000 from our program," Grider said. "That's a big percentage of your budget so it affects the general operation of the program and everything we do for our kids."
Marion was originally scheduled to play at Region 3-2A foe Tyner this week but has moved that game to Oct. 9, cancelling a previously scheduled nonregion game at Walker Valley for that date. Marion will be off this week as well as next Friday before returning to the field on Oct. 2 to face region foe Bledsoe County at home.
"You never know, if things work out and we're still playing in a few weeks and we both wind up getting more games canceled and have the same open date again then we could look at scheduling (South Pittsburg) then," said Pruitt, who added that he would be open to negotiating with South Pittsburg on ways to continue the series. "I'm up for anything. People want to play this game and I understand that but right now it's not planned to play it this year. This COVID stuff came up and it's one time in a million years that it happens and has just made everything unpredictable."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.