Four short weeks ago, East Ridge played Hixson in a key District 6-AA high school football game at the Wildcats’ Community Stadium.
Friday night, thanks to the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association’s sometimes weird way to fill out playoff brackets, the two schools – separated by 19 miles and a 30-minute drive time – will play once again with one caveat.
There is more at stake.
This time around the Pioneers (5-5) and Wildcats (7-3) will square off in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs, once again at Hixson High.
All TSSAA playoff games leading up to Championship Saturday on Dec. 5-7 at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, start at 7 p.m. Admission is a TSSAA-mandated $8.
Tonight’s winner moves on. The loser is finished. The stakes are that stark.
But when it comes to the rematch, there are positive aspects for both teams.
“Well, they know us and we know them,” East Ridge coach Tracy Malone said Thursday, just before heading out for an UPWARD flag football awards event. “It’s a local matchup. There are no secrets and it would be hard for our kids to handle something new like a long road trip to, say, Giles County.
“We’re excited to be playing Hixson. We’re OK with it.”
Hixson, the regular season district champion and the quadrant’s No. 2 seed – Signal Mountain (7-3) is No. 1, is making its second straight playoff appearance. The Wildcats lost to Notre Dame, 31-6, in 2012 and haven’t gotten past the first round since 1998 when they beat Knox Halls before losing to Knox Central.
“You would hope in the first round you wouldn’t have to play a team from your own district,” Wildcats coach Jason Fitzgerald said. “But we saw two scenarios where we could have played (Chattanooga) Central or East Ridge. It was a good, close ballgame during the season and you would think it’s going to be a tight ballgame this time.”
Central (5-5) travels to Sequoyah (8-2) for its first-round game.
East Ridge, a No. 7 seed, hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2010 and, like the Wildcats, didn’t enjoy a lot of success when it got there.
The Pioneers are making their 13th playoff appearance dating to 1970 when they lost to Memphis Melrose, 26-6, in the Class AAA semifinals, according to the Tennessee Prep Football Database, but have been first-round victims in seven consecutive trips to the postseason.
East Ridge did advance to the second round in 1997 and 2001, losing to Maryville and Rhea County, respectively.
“We’ve talked to the kids about being part of something special and place a lot of value in what we can accomplish,” said Malone, who is in his second year with the Pioneers.
East Ridge went 3-7 and 5-5 and missed the playoffs in 2011 and 2012 after earning playoffs berths from 2008-10, where the Pioneers lost to White House, Knoxville Fulton and Greeneville by a combined score of 116-23.
The Pioneers finished with records of 6-5, 7-4 and 4-7 during that three-year playoff run, but Malone hopes his squad can begin a more rewarding trek through the postseason in 2013.
“This will sound like coach-speak,” Malone said, “but I don’t think we’ve played our best football game in all three phases (offense, defense, special teams) yet. We’ve continued to improve all season and that’s what a coach looks for.
“I really think our best football is ahead of us. I’d like to see us win and keep going.”
Hixson, which relies heavily on a time-consuming ground attack and a hard-nosed defense, won the regular-season meeting with East Ridge, 19-14, and is coming off a disappointing 14-12 loss to Brainerd to close the regular season.
East Ridge defeated Brainerd, 35-22. The Pioneers also came up short against Walker Valley (21-3), Notre Dame (21-9), Loudon (42-7) and Tyner (28-14). Notre Dame (7-3) and Tyner (4-6) are in the Class 3A playoffs.
“We have a lot of respect for Hixson,” Malone said, “but we believe in ourselves. If we play well, we’ve got a shot. We match up OK with them and both teams have good players and are well-coached.”
Malone knows what his Pioneers have to do to have a chance at avenging the earlier loss to Hixson.
“Obviously, we’ve got to limit our mistakes,” he said. “We don’t want one mistake become two. Another thing we have to do is settle down, don’t press and try to do too much, and play our game.
“We can play with them. But we can’t go out there thinking we have to do something crazy to win.”
TSSAA First-Round Playoff Games
All Games Start at 7 p.m. Local Time
Bradley Central (5-5) at Maryville (10-0)
Lenoir City (5-5) at Rhea County (9-1)
Cleveland (7-3) at White County (8-2)
Oak Ridge (7-3) at East Hamilton (8-2)
Stone Memorial (6-4) at Ooltewah (8-2)
Marshall County (4-6) at Signal Mountain (7-3)
Central (5-5) at Sequoyah (8-2)
East Ridge (5-5) at Hixson (7-3)
Grundy County (4-6) at Upperman (10-0)
Tyner (4-6) at Smith County (6-4)
Cascade (7-3) at Notre Dame (7-3)
Sequatchie County (5-5) at Polk County (8-2)
Rockwood (7-3) at Silverdale Baptist (9-1)
Middle Tennessee Christian (6-4) at Marion County (8-2)
Boyd-Buchanan (4-6) drew a bye
South Pittsburg (9-1) drew a bye
Pope John Paul (4-6) at Baylor (6-4)
McCallie (3-7) at Father Ryan (6-4)
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)