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When coronavirus fears hit the United States and social-distancing measures began to be broadly enforced, it placed Oneida’s boys basketball team’s first state tournament appearance in 24 years on hold — and left the Indians waiting, anxiously, to see if the pandemic subsides quickly enough to allow that tournament to be played.

But boys basketball wasn’t the only team at Oneida looking forward to ending its season in Murfreesboro. The Oneida boys soccer team, too, felt like it had a real shot of making it to the state tournament for the first time ever.

“They’ve worked all year on this,” Oneida head coach Derek Keeton said. “We had a club team that has been working since July and August, and then all winter they came in and played. It was the most we’ve ever done. That’s the part that hurts the most. These kids worked so hard and prepare for this.”

Meanwhile, in Huntsville, Scott High’s boys soccer team had also worked hard in anticipation of the start of the season. Last year saw the Highlanders finish above .500 for the first time in several years, and they felt like they had a chance to continue to build on that momentum in 2020.

“It’s truly disappointing for various reasons,” Scott High head coach Eric Henry said. “Obviously, just not being able to play is aggravating. Then you’ve got your seniors, you’ve got a lot of boys who put a lot of time in. You’ve got middle school players. Everybody is losing one year of instruction. There’s nothing going on. And you’ll see that next year, because there’s no growth taking place.”

Both head coaches are holding out hope that the 2020 spring season will be able to be played. “I have to hold that hope for the boys,” Keeton said. “It’s a small slimmer of hope that I’m holding onto. I was out last night lining the field, just keeping the lines there.”

And, yet, you can sense it in the way they talk — the way they sometimes refer to their teams in the past-tense … with each passing day, the hope that normalcy will return and sports season will resume fades a bit more. It’s hard not to sense it. TSSAA chief Bernard Childress has said the state’s sanctioning body is doing everything it can to save the season — not only spring sports but the state basketball tournaments — but he’s also begun to publicly speculate that coronavirus concerns might cost at least part of the fall sports season, including football, as well.

“I’m really disappointed that spring sports as a whole have taken a hit,” Henry said. “We’re kinda the red-headed stepchild when it comes to athletics. When we don’t get to play, it hurts us, and our parents and players and supporters, just as much as it does the big three of boys basketball, girls basketball and football.

“It may not affect as big a number of poeple, but when you add in baseball, softball, track and soccer, that represents a lot of kids at both high schools here in the county,” Henry added. “You’re looking at a lot of athletes that didn’t get to do anything this spring.”

Most of all, everyone is focused on the seniors — those who won’t get another chance to play the game they love if coronavirus does, in fact, cost them their season. Between them, Oneida and Scott High have 14 seniors. At Oneida, Drew Dewitt, Zac Hacker, Josh Alcorn, Rhemci Chitwood, Alex Jones, Jacob Manis, Creighton May and Ethan Erwin make up the nucleus of a team that had lofty expectations for the season. At Scott High, Alex Rector, Nate Byrge, Canaan Lay, Sawyer Roberts, Wyatt Terry and Zach Sexton were set to continue the Highlanders’ resurgence.

The Oneida Indians, coached by Derek Keeton, had state tournament aspirations heading into the 2020 spring season. (Photo: Debbie Phillips)

Oneida had big goals

The Indians began eyeing the 2020 season last summer. That’s when several players from Oneida and several more from Scott High joined forces to form a club team — coached by Sarah Hacker — that competed throughout July and August, primarily against teams from Knoxville, along with club teams from Oak Ridge, Chattanooga and North Carolina.

“We competed really well,” Keeton said. “We won a couple of games, and then we went all the way to the championship game in the tournament. And we went in as the lowest team, so that shows you how much they improved.”

Once winter rolled around and team workouts were off-limits, Oneida players continued to play indoors at the elementary school, scrimmaging every week. “It’s like pickup basketball,” Keeton said, “and it’s so improtant because you’re playing and you aren’t losing your touch.” Most of the time, Scott High’s Josiah Fladie — a junior who was expected to play a prominent role for the Highlanders this season — joined the Indians indoors during the winter months.

The Indians had reason for high expectations. Last year, they played without one of their top players — Danner Keeton, who missed the season with a knee injury — yet still battled through a slow start to win the District 3-A championship. They were then one goal away from winning the region tournament and hosting a substate game.

Oneida returned Jacob Manis, who Keeton called “the best defensive guy in East Tennessee, at all levels.” Also back was Dewitt playing center back, and Chitwood at left back.

“There’s nobody faster than Drew on grass, anywhere,” Keeton said. “And then Rhemci, he had worked hard on his speed and he was ready this year. Creighton May had come in and given us some good depth. He hadn’t played before but I love that kid.

“Our defense was going to be fantastic this year,” Keeton added. “From that standpoint, and the senior-related stuff, we had a lot of experience coming back.”

In the midfield, Jones had returned to the team to pick up where he left off as a sophomore. Up front, Alcorn was described by Keeton as the team’s most-improved player. He had a hat trick in the season-opener against Clinton. “His IQ has just really improved; he’s a natural one-touch scorer,” Keeton said.

All in all, this was to have been Oneida’s year. Keeton saw it when he took the job three years ago. And the pieces were all in place.

“Last year, we had to play our butts off every game,” he said. “This year, we felt like with our experience that we would be in much better shape. We probably have more experience than most teams in Double-A.”

In the only game the Indians got to play, against Clinton, the Indians showed why they felt they were good enough to win the district and the region, avoid the Gatlinburg monster that awaited in the sectionals, and earn an opportunity to host a sub-state game with a state tournament berth on the line. 

“That was probably the best offensive game I’ve ever coached at Oneida,” Keeton said. “Just the way they did it … it was real soccer. These kids truly were playing fantastic soccer. I was so encouraged.

“There was a legit shot this year,” he added. “It wasn’t, ‘Get to sub-state and then get throttled.’ It was, ‘Get to sub-state and you’ve got a shot.’ This was maybe the best team that nobody got to see. And it wasn’t just us. Eric was going to be a good team this year, too. All these kids have worked all year on this.”

The Scott Highlanders, coached by Eric Henry, looked to build on a momentum-building season in 2019 as they entered the 2020 spring season. (Photo: LeEtta Boyatt)

Scott eyed the top of the district

Jones, Byrge, Roberts and Sexton are all four-year seniors at Scott High. That leadership at the top was a big reason why Henry felt his team was set to improve on last year’s momentum-building season.

“We were above .500 last year for the first year in a long time. We had a good schedule this year. It’s just aggravating,” Henry said.

The Highlanders, too, showed off in the season-opener, throttling Cumberland Gap, 6-1. The Panthers are always tough, and Scott won that game last year just 1-0. It was a sign of what could be. And then the virus hit.

Early on, Henry talked to other coaches in District 5-AA, and there was an intent to play at least the district games once school resumed, then go from there. 

“Everybody is going to be rusty so it would be a level playing field as far as that goes,” Henry said. “At least we’d be on the field. It’s like any other sport: you don’t get better unless you’re on the court and on the field.”

It’s not just his seniors that had Henry looking forward to the season. A lot of younger players were expected to provide quality minutes this spring. 

“We had a freshman (Adrian Parra) come in at goalie that was going to get a lot of time between the posts this year, and several new kids that were going to get a lot of playing time,” Henry said. “We had a lot of sophomores that were going to grow up this year.” 

Among the newcomers who were set for big things at Scott High were Eli Storey, a junior, and players like Ira Marcus, John Zachary, Fladie, Connor Stanley and Noah Cotton.

“All of this is stifled this year,” Henry said. “And it’s not just our kids. You look at Danner Keeton, at Oneida. He missed last year with the injury and now if he misses this year, he basically has two years of high school soccer. I feel bad for these kids.”

Getting quality time is difficult enough in the spring, as it is. Coming out of winter, the weather is usually less than ideal. And, unlike the fall, when the girls are free to begin soccer work once basketball summer camp has ended, spring soccer must wait until basketball completes its season before those players can join the rest of the team.

Scott High began its workouts in January, running and conditioning between the record rainfall. In their traditional playday in early March, the Highlanders performed well, losing a match to Campbell County to start the day, then playing well the rest of the day.

“it’s a lot easier to play a pickup game in basketball than it is in soccer,” Henry said. “But it’s no different in soccer. You have to get your touches, get your reps in. It’s one of those things where you have to spend a lot of time at it to get as good as a Josiah Fladie or a Connor Stanley on the ball. It’s hard to get those touches when it’s 40 degrees and the ball feels like a rock.”

In addition to his high school team, Henry points to the players coming up who are missing most of their eighth grade seasons. One of them is his own son, Hugo Henry, an eighth grader at Burchfield.

“He loves soccer and he’s pretty good at it,” Henry said. “I’m really disappointed that he only gets two games in and then that’s it. You’ve got Skye Babb at Huntsville, a couple of other kids from Huntsville, a couple from Fairview, a couple from Robbins, some from Burchfield. So they lose that eighth grade year. It hurts because those kids, they only get a teaspoon of soccer as it is, coming into high school, and now that’s gone.”

Life lessons in hard times

As much as the players and coaches are disappointed by the way things have transpired this spring, they know the coronavirus is an unique opponent.

“At first I was like, you know, it’s not that big of a deal,” Henry said. “But when I started out in education, I was in Chattanooga doing student-teaching and we had a lot of kids in the inner city raised by their grandparents. You see that more and more even here in Scott County. So I can see the dangers of bringing it home and spreading it to people who are more vulnerable. My mom will be 80 this year, so she’s in that group. But these kids are losing too much instruction. It’s a lot.”

Keeton said the lessons for the student-athletes are valuable, even if they’re painful.

“The number one thing, I told our kids, is this: When you look at what our medical folks are doing right now, every day they’re basically walking into a war zone,” Keeton said. “I can’t think of a better example for courage, that our kids are seeing as we’re seeing right now. There’s nothing I could’ve taught them on the soccer field or off it that would match what they’re seeing our medical folks deal with right now. 

“Even though we’re hurting, there are people who are literally dealing with life or death. Soccer is not life or death,” he added. “At the end of the day, soccer is still just a game. That’s the thing I want my guys to take away from this. I really don’t know what to tell my seniors right now, and I’m never at a loss for words. But I’m afraid they’re going to lose the season. And I don’t know what to tell them except to tell them that if you’re a born-again Christian, everything is to glorify the Lord and to trust in Him.  That’s the truth. And that’s all I can tell them.”