Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association finalized new districts and regions for 2023-25 following Thursday’s Board of Control meeting.
The changes will have a big impact on several county sports teams, most notably pitting Loudon and Lenoir City high schools against each other in four sports.
As the most widely offered sports in the state, basketball, softball and baseball are all grouped for the purpose of TSSAA classification and districting. Going into the new two-year period, Loudon moved up a class from 2A to 3A for those sports following enrollment growth, while Lenoir City remained in 3A as the second-largest school in the bracket.
Given the geographical proximity of both schools, it was no surprise Loudon joined Lenoir City in District 5-3A once new districts were determined.
Heritage High School, class 3A’s largest school, joined from District 4, while Austin-East and Fulton high schools departed, having moved down a class and to District 3, respectively. Sequoyah and South-Doyle high schools remained in place to complete the five-team district.
There will be less change to District 6-3A, which makes up the second half of Loudon and Lenoir City’s Region 3-3A.
East Hamilton High School left after moving up a class, but Chattanooga Central, East Ridge, Hixson, Red Bank, Signal Mountain and Soddy Daisy high schools remain ever-present, with no newcomers joining.
The district realignment appears particularly mouthwatering for baseball, where Lenoir City and Loudon split their two contests last season and are both reigning district and region champions. Only one school will be able to claim the crown in 2024 in what should make for highly contested rivalry games.
“To me it’s a little more exciting,” Jason Lambert, LHS head baseball coach, said. “The outcome of those games will have more meaning rather than just bragging rights, so it’s going to be nice that it’ll increase the competitiveness of those games.”
Lambert added it would also bring a welcome change in scheduling, as the schools will no longer have to play a district opponent and a Battle of the Bridge game in the same week.
As the Panthers learned from repeat encounters with South-Doyle last season, competing for a district or region title with the Redskins could also mean multiple additional games between the two rivals. There could be as many as five matchups between the two on the way to a region championship and even additional state matchups should both reach Murfreesboro.
“Playing anyone more than two times in a season makes it competitive,” Aaron Simmons, LCHS head baseball coach, said. “The more you play each other, the more you get to know each other, and you start finding flaws and you find strength things for your team as well to help your team progress. We played South-Doyle five times last season. It’s hard to beat anybody five times. … It’s going to make it that much more fun simply because of the rivalry Loudon and Lenoir City has had and all the tradition between the two teams.”
While neither the boys or girls basketball nor softball teams from the two schools competed for any major honors last season, the added weight of district seeding and playoff implications should still add a whole new layer to the matchups.
Josh Brannon, LCHS head boys basketball coach, recognized that sharing a district with the Redskins would change the game’s nature, though he believes community pride will still be the main motivator for those matchups.
“I don’t think it affects the way that we view it, because that’s a special game regardless of how things are stacked in the district,” he said. “Obviously, that adds additional implications for seeding in the tournament, postseason, there’s extra factors that you resort to of what’s at stake, but the biggest thing is that’s a game about pride.
“That’s one the community expects to win, and we want to win every single one” he added. “So I don’t think, regardless of district or non-district, I don’t think anything is going to trump community pride. We want to win that game and we want to represent this side of the bridge in a successful manner each time we play those games.”
Loudon and Lenoir City will also face off in boys and girls soccer.
Loudon moved back up to class 2A after a hugely successful two-year stint in 1A that saw the girls and the boys sweep their district both years. Lenoir City dropped down from 3A after James Lawson High School, a 2A school, requested to move up a class.
Originally set to be the smallest school in 3A — one student larger than the biggest 2A school — Lenoir City moved down to keep classes balanced as a result of James Lawson’s decision and will now be the the biggest 2A school, one student shy of 3A’s new smallest school.
For both the Panthers and Lady Panthers, the change is welcome after being stuck in a district with several powerhouse soccer programs for the past few years. With only three classes for soccer, there is no cap on enrollment size for the schools Lenoir City has traditionally faced, with several of them nearly twice as large.
“Obviously, it’s beneficial for us from a standpoint we’re playing schools that are more our size, that look like us from a roster standpoint,” Chris Pickell, LCHS girls head and boys assistant soccer coach, said. “We were fortunate, let’s be honest about it, and I told the girls in two more years we could very well be back up in AAA. So really there’s no guarantees, it’s a bit more of a reprieve. … But at the end of the day you play who you have to play and you do your very best and whatever happens happens.”
Despite now being the largest school in 2A soccer, Pickell said he does not believe there is any additional pressure for either the girls or boys team to dominate at that level. Several 2A teams are just as competitive as 3A, including some of the Panthers and Lady Panthers’ new District 5-2A opponents.
Loudon is not the only 1A school to be making the move to District 5-2A following 1A success, as Alcoa will be doing the same after reaching state for both boys and girls in their most recent seasons. Though the two schools were not in the same district or region in 1A, Alcoa’s girls will be a familiar opponent for the Lady Redskins, who lost to them in this year’s sectionals.
Sequoyah and South-Doyle high schools will complete Lenoir City and Loudon’s new district, while District 6-2A, the second half of the new region, will be made up of Chattanooga Central, East Ridge, Hixson, Red Bank, Signal Mountain and Soddy Daisy.
“The new district and region looks very strong,” Yoni Espinoza, LHS head boys soccer coach, said. “Our program can only get stronger with that kind of competition, as it forces our coaching staff and new players to better plan the road and work hard the whole season. I can see the top teams in the new District 5 making a run for state, and it’s going to be nice seeing the LC game as a must-win instead of a preparation game. I know the players will be looking forward to that game every year.”
While those changes are the most noteworthy, there are plenty more novelties awaiting all three county schools in 2023.
In addition to the above classification changes, Loudon decided to apply for a move up in football after originally remaining in 3A as the largest school in that group.
Jeff Harig, LHS head football coach, said the request aimed to keep the team in the Chattanooga region, so he was happy with the outcome.
As a result, the Redskins will face a new slate of region opponents next fall in Region 3-4A, though with some familiar faces. Signal Mountain High School, who competed with Loudon in Region 3-3A the past five seasons, moved up following enrollment growth. The region also features Red Bank High School, who spent four years in Region 3-3A from 2017-2020, winning it three times, twice with Loudon as runner-up.
“(Red Bank is) a very good team,” Harig said. “They possess a level of athleticism and discipline and they’re well coached, so we look forward to renewing our rivalry with them again.”
Region 4-3A’s other teams will be Soddy Daisy, who the Redskins faced as non-region opponents the past two years, East Ridge, Hixson and Sequoyah, making it a seven-team region as opposed to the six teams comprising Region 3-3A the past two years.
Region 4-4A, which will determine Loudon’s playoff opponents for the first three rounds, consists of Cumberland County, DeKalb County, Livingston, Macon County, Stone Memorial, Upperman and White County high schools.
The final big change for Loudon will come in track and field, where the Redskins moved from 1A to 2A. Formerly in Class A East Section, Loudon will now compete in District 1-2A with completely different opponents. Alcoa is the only team to have moved with them into their new 33-school district.
Loudon volleyball will also see a change, though of minor note. The Lady Redskins, formerly in District 5-2A, will now compete in District 4-2A. Three current district opponents, Alcoa, Kingston and Sequoyah, move with them, while Anderson County and South-Doyle high schools will be new foes.
The move leads to a region change as well, where Loudon will now have Austin-East, Carter, Fulton, Gatlinburg-Pittman, Northview, Pigeon Forge and Seymour high schools making up the second half of Region 2-2A.
In cross country, golf and tennis, the Redskins see no change other than a couple of opponents moving either in and out.
Soccer is the only classification change for Lenoir City ahead of the new two-year period, though the Panthers will still see some differences in the 2023-25 cycle by virtue of district and region realignments.
In football, Lenoir City remains in Region 3-5A with only one difference to the lineup. Powell High School, the region’s two-time reigning champion, will move to Region 2, leaving Region 3 with just five teams.
“Anytime you lose a team that last year won the state championship and then this year is still playing right now (in the semifinals), it gives the other teams from the region an opportunity,” Gary Dugger, LCHS head football coach, said. “Now there’s only five teams in the region instead of six, fighting for four sports, so obviously mathematically your chances go up, and I think we realize in our region there’s no clear runaway and there’s no easy weeks by any means. You better bring your A game every week with all the teams that are in our region.”
With only one region team now set to miss out on postseason, Lenoir City will hope to finally face off with one of the Region 4-5A teams in the playoffs. Like Region 3, Region 4 is largely unchanged, with East Hamilton the only addition to the existing group of McMinn County, Ooltewah, Rhea County and Walker Valley high schools and The Howard School.
Lenoir City was hoping for another change in volleyball, where the school petitioned to move districts. Like in soccer, LCHS has spent the last few years in a district featuring a number of significantly larger schools and wished to play teams closer to their enrollment numbers, while also looking to move to a smaller district than the one they currently compete in.
The Lady Panthers appealed to move to District 5-3A, a four-team district in the Cleveland area, but the request was denied. They will remain in District 4-3A, an eight-team district combining Knoxville and Maryville schools. The only change to Lenoir City’s district and region is the move by West High School, currently in District 3, to District 4.
“We were just looking to provide our kids with more equitable competition than the district that we were in,” Chris Brittain, LCHS athletic director, said. “We are the smallest school there in terms of numbers, so we were just trying to get in a district that was more comparable in terms of size of student population as Lenoir City currently is.”
While TSSAA did not provide an official reason for the denial of the request, Brittain said it was most likely based on geographical factors. However, he pointed out that while mileage might well be higher to the Cleveland area schools, travel time would have been similar.
Lenoir City’s track and field grouping was renamed from Section 1-AAA to District 1-AAA, with regions making their first appearance in the sport, but it will bear little change on opponents. Only one school currently in Section 1, David Crockett High School, will not be in District 1, while Knoxville Halls High School is the only newcomer.
The Panthers will also see East Hamilton joining Region 3-AAA in track and field and have entirely unchanged districts and regions for tennis and golf.
As one of the smallest schools in the state, Greenback School was at no risk of moving out of its current classification. However, the Cherokees will nevertheless see a couple of changes.
In football, Greenback remains in Region 2-1A, which added Rockwood High School, a former 2A school, and lost none. Already one of the larger regions, the Cherokees are now one of eight teams competing for just four playoff spots.
“I think it makes it a lot more competitive,” Ethan Edmiston, Greenback head football coach, said. “You’re going to have a lot of people fighting to get in, and four teams are going to be left out. And Rockwood is a good team, they’re solid, so it’s going to put a lot of pressure on our region to perform well in those region games. You can’t have any slip-up games.”
In Greenback’s partner region, Hancock County, who spent the past two years not affiliated with any region, will be the one addition the Cherokees can face in the early playoff rounds.
In basketball, baseball and softball, Greenback was originally set for a move to District 2-1A, but successfully appealed to remain in District 4-1A instead. As a result, their district opponents are unchanged.
“We made the appeal to move districts because when the TSSAA created that district, there were three schools in the district that did not have basketball, so that left us with three teams,” Rick Sandlin, Greenback assistant athletic director, said. “And we did not want to go to the Northeast because of travel and fan following and the economic impact it would have on us, so we made the request to go down to where Oakdale, Midway and those Roane County schools are, because in the past we have been in districts and regions with those teams so we kind of know them.”
In District 3, Jellico High School joined as a new Region 2-1A foe, while Oneida High School departed.
The Cherokees did not appeal their change in soccer, where they also moved from District 4-1A to District 2-1A. As such, they will face a new slate of opponents in Harriman, Kingston, Oliver Springs, Oneida and Rockwood high schools and Eagleton College and Career Academy.
District 1-1A, providing Greenback’s Region 1-1A opponents, consists of Chuckey-Doak, Cosby, Cumberland, Gatlinburg-Pittman, Pigeon Forge, University School and West Greene high schools.
Greenback’s volleyball district and region will also change after moving from District 3-1A to District 2-1A. The Lady Cherokees will now face Cosby, Eagleton, Jellico and Washburn high schools as well as the Tennessee School for the Deaf, a welcome change after previously competing with teams located significantly farther from the school.
The switch also includes a move from a nine-team to a six-team district, which will allow the program more flexibility in scheduling additional non-district opponents as it continues to grow in just its third year.
Greenback’s final district change will come in wrestling, where the Cherokees missed out on the season in 2021-22 after failing to find a head coach. The program is back up and running this year under the stewardship of Bryce Ruis and is set to begin competition in January in District 6-1A, but will move to District 5-1A in the 2023-24 academic year. Alcoa, McMinn Central and Samuel Everett high schools will make the switch with the Cherokees, while Heritage and Polk County will be new adversaries.
Given that District 5 and 6 are both Region 3-1A, the programs remaining in District 6 — Cumberland County and Stone Memorial — will now be region opponents for the Cherokees alongside Alvin C. York Institute, Livingston Academy and Upperman High School.
Greenback’s golf district and region will remain unchanged.