McMinn County's football season is at an end. Not by a result earned on the field, but by a ruling from the TSSAA.
The governing body of Tennessee high school athletics decided Monday evening that the second-round Class 6A playoff game will not be played due to COVID-19 and that the Cherokees' opponent, Dobyns-Bennett, will advance to the quarterfinals.
The TSSAA had attempted to reschedule the game for Tuesday, according to a letter written by TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress to principals of both McMinn County and Dobyns-Bennett high schools. The game had been canceled Friday at J. Fred Johnson Stadium in Kingsport, after pregame warmups were halted about half an hour before the scheduled kickoff.
However, the letter said that the TSSAA did not receive requested verification from the McMinn County Health Department by deadline Monday evening, which was pertaining to whether McMinn County High School had adequately performed contact tracing in response to one player who been ill at practice last Tuesday.
Because of that, the TSSAA had "no alternative but to call off the game and advance Dobyns-Bennett High School in the playoffs," the letter said.
Calls to McMinn County Health Department director Jeannie Bentley were not returned as of Monday evening.
The MCHS protocol requires contact tracing for any individual who had been in close contact with the ill player either 48 hours before onset of symptoms, if any, or 48 hours before the test date if asymptomatic. Players under contact tracing protocol were not permitted to participate in the game Friday.
According to the letter, the ill player was sent home from practice Tuesday. McMinn football coach Bo Cagle had previously told The Daily Post-Athenian the Cherokees did not practice Wednesday, and the player who was sick did not attend practice Thursday.
The player, who is taking virtual classes only this semester, was tested for COVID-19 Thursday morning, receiving a positive result, according to the letter. However, the player suffers from asthma and received a second examination from his physician Friday morning, which discovered a lack of antibodies in his blood for COVID-19 – leading to the physican concluding Thursday's test was possibly a false positive, the letter said.
Regardless of that second examination, the player did not travel with the team on the buses Friday to Kingsport and ate the team meal in a separate part of the restaurant from the rest of the Cherokees, the letter said. During that meal, the player was informed that he was not allowed to play in the game.
"I hate this for our kids and community," Cagle said in a statement. "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."
The Cherokees had practiced Monday in hopes that their possible dream season would get to continue. Instead, their campaign ends after a 10-1 record, their second straight Region 2-6A runner-up finish and their first win in a playoff game in eight years.
For several of McMinn's 19 seniors, whose careers with the Cherokees ended via an off-the-field decision, the news was especially hard to take.
"I just want to say how terrible this is because all we did were the right protocols in this situation and nothing else," said offensive lineman and team captain Garrett Priest. "And to have this ripped from us like this is disgusting."
Defensive back Bryson Fox felt the Cherokees were "robbed" of the chance to settle the result on the field.
"I have been taught all my life to respect the authority of the world around me," Fox said. "In this instance, it is hard to understand how a decision to end our season, without an opportunity to win or lose between the white lines, can be respected.
"I am Cherokee strong. Coach Cagle has taught us that. I will be strong through this but always know that the class of 2020 was special and was robbed of an opportunity to prove that on the field. Much love to my coaches and my team. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this."
Wide receiver/defensive back Nick Bottoms said the news was "devastating for sure," but he also took the time to thank all of his fellow seniors, the rest of the Cherokees, the coaches and the community.
"To the McMinn County community, I want to thank every single one of you guys for coming out to support us during this season," Bottoms said. "I will never forget but always miss the sound of you guys stomping on the stands before kickoffs and on third down."
And for the "Voice of the Cherokees," Johnny Coffman, it was a most unusual end to a legendary 48-year career on call for McMinn County football games – although he did consider it was possible on the way home from Kingsport following Friday's cancellation announcement.
"That was on my mind all the way back home and had been until just a couple hours ago, when I got the news that the season was over for McMinn," Coffman said to The DPA. "I had tried not to think about it and had held out a glimmer of hope that it could be worked out and they would still tee it up. The general consensus of people in and around the football program was optimism in having a great chance to beat D-B. I had thought about what I might say after they played their last game but had decided to do it all off the cuff, but that plan didn't work out too well."
But whatever Coffman was feeling about the manner in which his retirement began, he said his situation "pales in comparison to what I feel for these young men."
"I have been watching (grandson) Bryce (Goodner) and a large part of the others play for years back to junior days," Coffman said. "My heart breaks for them. I know how much the game meant to them, how much they cared for each other and how competitive they were. I also realize how talented they were. They were in the top three or four teams I saw in my 48 years of broadcasting and my years watching going back to the mid-60s. Sadly, we will never completely know where their place in history will reside."
Dobyns-Bennett, meanwhile, moves on to play Friday at Maryville in the Class 6A quarterfinal round. Maryville remains the only opponent to have defeated the Cherokees on the field this season.