Football teams push through difficult season

Loudon High School’s Keaton Harig, left, wraps up Lenoir City High School’s Dusty Clevenger in the Redskins’ 44-10 win over the Panthers.

The 2020 high school football season will go down in Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association history as one of the most challenging in the organization’s 95-year existence, but all three Loudon County teams were able to power through and make it across the finish line without major hiccups.

As basketball season was wrapping up, players began weight lifting regimens and coaches prepared for spring practice. But the world was turned upside down when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in mid-March.

As cases began to rise, schools shut down and football teams across the state were forced to halt all activities for nearly three months before receiving clearance from state officials to slowly return to normal activities during the summer.

“Coming into my senior year with this pandemic going on, it was strange because we never knew if we were going to play or even practice,” Colton Alexander, Greenback School senior lineman, said. “At the beginning of the year, we were working in our groups and small, little pods and stuff like that and able to actually get in some weight lifting. We were able to squeeze in some conditioning, too, with social distancing and all of that.”

Workouts were limited to nine players and one coach and broken into several sessions each day. Teams were allowed no contact through June and July before Gov. Bill Lee signed Executive Order 55, which allowed teams to start practice Aug. 4.

Teams had three weeks to prepare before the start of the season Aug. 21.

“I think it taught us all to kind of pare down what are the most important things that you want to get done,” Jeff Harig, Loudon High School head football coach, said. “I never would’ve dreamed hosting 13 football games with essentially no preseason conditioning or any of that stuff — we had three weeks before we got started. Do you really have to do all those things to get to the season?”

For the Lenoir City High School Panthers, the pandemic hit during a transition period between new offensive and defensive coordinators.

“As we went into the day after Memorial Day, we were able to start lifting again as a team but there were a lot of questions about the whole process,” Jeff Cortez, LCHS head football coach, said. “It was like, ‘When are we going to play? Are we going to play?’ For us, we made the decision to change our offense and went out and got a new defensive coordinator to bring in a new style. We changed everything on offense and defense, so not having a spring was not good for us. Looking back in hindsight, this probably wouldn’t have been the year to make swooping changes, but we made those changes in January and February. We still feel today that the changes we made are for our benefit.”

All three teams were relatively healthy to start the season but impacted midway through the year when depth was depleted due to contact tracing and positive cases within locker rooms.

After starting the season 1-4, the Greenback Cherokees were hit with injuries and the virus. The team missed an entire month.

However, the Cherokees returned to action Oct. 23 and reeled off three straight wins before bowing out in the Class 1A quarterfinals to the Coalfield School Yellowjackets.

“It was rough because we had that loss against a good Loudon team and a good Meigs County team, but we had that bye week because Sunbright had COVID,” Alexander said. “Coming into Oneida, it was just another rough week. Even though being a senior it sucks having those four games that we missed, but having that month period off really helped us grow as a team. We ended up getting players moved where they needed to be, and we ended up having a really good end-of-the-year push up until the playoffs.”

The Panthers were without several key starters every week except Oct. 23 in a 15-6 win over Seymour High School.

“There were so many things that transpired in a short period of time, and our kids are trying to adapt on the fly to all of this as well,” Cortez said. “The thing I’m most proud of our guys about is they answered the call. If you’re not aware of what the scoreboard is, you’ll see us making a stop late in the third quarter, you’ll still see us trying to score late in the fourth quarter. We didn’t give in, roll over and die. Even toward the end of the year when we had more kids quarantined and missing starters, we showed up to play. I’m real proud of our guys for their willingness to play.”

Loudon was determined to make another deep run in the playoffs following an historical push to the Class 3A semifinals last year, but the Redskins also faced challenges after losing several starters to COVID-19 in a four-game stretch.

The Redskins were able to accumulate a 10-3 record that ended with a quarterfinals loss to the Red Bank High School Lions.

“We lost several starters for an extended period of time and had guys step up and fill in the voids for them,” Harig said. “You just never know what’s going to happen, so walking on egg shells was another type thing that we had never had to experience before. I think the No. 1 thing this team did was it did not beat itself. We had a very low number of turnovers, did a good job of forcing them on defense and minus that last game, we did a great job of not giving up big plays for touchdowns.”

Coaches are hoping for a “more normal” 2021 season.

“I really feel even more confident and excited about starting all over,” Cortez said. “We’ve got kids who are looking at a new schedule and the only two teams they know are Loudon and Heritage, so there’s a lot of new opportunities there. We’re excited and hopeful for a normal year and to get the kids in the classroom and on the field.”