Hixson’s Jason Fitzgerald summed up the feeling Saturday morning of every prep football coach whose team gets to continue a season-long quest for a state championship, starting with first-round games this week.
“We’re just happy to be here,” Fitzgerald said.
The Wildcats (7-3) capped the regular season on Friday with a come-from-behind 27-21 win over Central and will face Notre Dame (8-2) in a Class 4A opening-round game at Notre Dame.
All playoff games start at 7 p.m. local time.
Hixson (6-1) finished second in District 6-2A, losing only to league champion East Hamilton, 49-0, on Oct. 5. They are making their first playoff appearance since 2005.
In six trips to the postseason, Hixson is 1-6 and advanced to the second round just once, that coming in 1998 by beating Knox Halls. The Wildcats lost the next week to Knox Central.
The Irish (4-1) were runner-up in District 7-2A behind Signal Mountain (5-0). Notre Dame dropped a 27-20 decision to the Eagles on Sept. 28.
“I’m proud of the kids and the coaching staff for getting us to the playoffs,” said Fitzgerald, in his first season leading the Wildcats. “We’re all excited Hixson was able to win seven games for the first time since 1998 and second time in the last 26 years.
“We didn’t know where we’d play or who we would play, but we’re looking forward to the first-round game at Notre Dame. They’re a great football team.”
The Irish, coached by Charles Fant, are coming off a 62-22 rout of Grundy County, outscoring the Warriors, 35-8, in the second half. Notre Dame rolled up 462 yards of total offense.
Hixson and Notre Dame will be playing for the first time since 2008 when the Wildcats won, 15-10. Hixson has won five of the past eight games against the Irish.
“We don’t know a whole lot about Notre Dame,” Fitzgerald said. “I know coach Fant has done a great job over there and they’ve got a lot of really good young players. We’re looking forward to the challenge and hope we play a good game over there.”
Nine other Chattanooga teams also are included in the 2012 playoff field – Lookout Valley in Class 1A; Boyd-Buchanan and Silverdale in Class 2A; Tyner in Class 3A; Signal Mountain and East Hamilton join Hixson and Notre Dame in Class 4A; Ooltewah in Class 5A; and Baylor and McCallie in Division II-2A.
Perhaps the strangest first-round pairing of all among area schools occurs in Class 6A where McMinn County and Bradley Central, which played for the District 5-3A title on Friday, turn right around and play again to open the playoffs.
East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood didn’t mind voicing his astonishment at such a matchup.
“That’s the craziest thing in the playoffs I’ve ever heard of in my life,” Gatewood said. “Those two coaches have to be beside themselves. Unfortunately, what do you do about it? I don’t know if there’s any recourse. We belong to the system and trust (TSSAA officials) to make the decisions for us.
“When you see people you’re really familiar with in the playoffs, it’s difficult for the kids and coaches and community to really wrap their hands around it being a playoff game.”
Remarkably, the way things played out on Friday, Bradley Central coach Damon Floyd wasn’t too surprised when the pairings came out.
“Honestly, we have a coach (Keith Freeman) who figures that stuff out,” Floyd said. “He told us we had a good chance of playing them again if we lost and Hardin County (out of Savannah) won. He was pretty sure of the matchup.
“It’s obviously not what you want to happen because we didn’t want them back-to-back, but we won’t worry about it. No matter who we play we have to get ready to play.”
Meanwhile, Gatewood’s Hurricanes met district rival Brainerd in a first-round game in 2011. East Hamilton won the regular-season game, 28-0, but the Panthers knocked off the Hurricanes, 21-14, six weeks later.
This time East Hamilton (9-1), riding an eight-game winning streak and back-to-back district championships, will host Marshall County (5-5), which finished tied for fourth place in District 12-2A.
“It’s ironic,” Gatewood said. “We scrimmaged Marshall before the season. We like to get out of the area and went to Shelbyville and Marshall to practice and work out with them. They’re a good football team.”
This time the Hurricanes will be at home where they were 4-1 during the season, losing only to rival Ooltewah, 31-28, on the final play of the game.
So, playing at home and having won eight straight times gives the Hurricanes a pretty strong level of confidence.
“It’s good to have that opportunity to play at home,” Gatewood said. “It’s a reward for your body of work during the season. We did the same thing last year, but didn’t hold up our end of the bargain (against Brainerd). We owe this school and community to redeem ourselves.”
Coach Shannon Williams’ Owls (7-3) head into the playoffs on a pretty nice roll, too.
They will host Anderson County (5-5) in a first round Class 6A showdown at James N. Monroe Stadium.
Ooltewah hammered Walker Valley with a 35-point second quarter and went on to shellack the Mustangs, 56-7. Ooltewah led, 49-7, at halftime and the Mustangs’ only touchdown came on a 97-yard kickoff return.
The Owls, since losing to McMinn County, 35-24, on Sept. 14, have whipped five straight opponents, averaging 41.8 points while allowing just 8.4.
“It’s a great feeling,” Williams said. “Football is a weird deal. You start back in August and can’t wait for it to be over. At this time of year, you don’t want it to end and will do anything to keep it going.
“This is the playoffs and that’s what you work for. It’s another opportunity to get better and keep playing.”
In 2011, Ooltewah defeated Shelbyville, 42-20, at home and then traveled to undefeated Powell where it lost, 42-21, in the second round. Powell finished 14-1, losing to Henry County, 17-14, in the championship game.
While preparing for Powell, the Owls got a look at Anderson County, which lost to Powell, 53-16, last season.
“Anderson has played some high-quality teams this year,” Williams said. “I expect them to be an excellent opponent. They scored 43 points on Powell and 45 on CAK (Christian Academy of Knoxville). If they’re like last year, they’ll throw it all over the yard.”
For awhile Saturday, Cleveland of District 5-AAA was in the Class 5A playoff bracket and slated to play at Columbia. However, an error in the tie-breaker procedure was discovered by the TSSAA and Sullivan South was placed in the bracket against Columbia.
All games start at 7 p.m. Local Time
Lookout Valley (5-5) at Copper Basin (7-3)
Columbia Academy (5-5) at South Pittsburg (7-3)
Rockwood (6-4) at Boyd-Buchanan (9-1)
Silverdale (9-1) at Hampton (9-1)
Marion County (8-2) drew a bye
Tyner (8-2) at Sweetwater (7-3)
Polk County (7-3) at Kingston (6-4)
Grundy County at Cheatham County (10-0)
McMinn Central (5-5) at Alcoa (9-1)
Hixson (7-3) at Notre Dame (8-2)
Page (6-4) at Signal Mountain (7-3)
Marshall County (5-5) at East Hamilton (9-1)
Anderson County (5-5) at Ooltewah (7-3)
Walker Valley (5-5) at Lenoir City (8-2)
Bradley Central (6-4) at McMinn County (9-1)
Battle Ground Academy (4-6) at Baylor (7-3), 7 p.m.
St. Benedict (4-5) at McCallie (4-5), 7 p.m.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)