Walking off the field after Friday night’s loss to Rhea County, Cleveland head coach Ron Crawford and his staff took to the coach’s room to find out if they still had a shot at the post-season.
According to their calculations the Raiders had played their last game. It was a season to take lessons away from, and it was time to move on and start preparing for next season, while at the same time, celebrating the effort 11 seniors left on the 2012 football field.
But, when the team awoke Saturday morning they had their hopes rekindled when the TSSAA announced in their official “Bracket Release Show” that Cleveland’s season was still alive. The team had a shot at redemption.
“It’s really tough knowing that we lost our last game, and it was a game that we could have won. Then, I texted coach Crawford Saturday morning asking if we had made it and he said we were in. I had a party we were so excited,” said Cleveland senior David Morgan.
Most of the day passed with the team’s hopes high and the coach’s busily preparing a game plan to combat an 8-2 Columbia Central Lion squad. Crawford had even gone as far as to meet coach Howard Stone halfway and exchange game film.
It looked like there might be a silver lining to a season that ended on a relatively low note. A chance to rectify mistakes made on the field. A shot at a state championship.
That silver lining loomed over the team almost all day. But then 7 p.m. came and word began circulating that the TSSAA had encountered a computer error that had kept Sullivan South out of the playoffs, and with Cleveland being the last team to make the cut their spot was now in danger.
Then, almost an hour later Crawford got the call. The TSSAA was removing the Raiders from the playoffs in favor of Sullivan South. Raider Nation’s hopes, built by the TSSAA’s earlier announcement, were dashed.
“That night I get on Twitter and see that we aren’t in the playoffs anymore. It’s depressing. It was very emotional. It was really hard to take. I feel for everyone, but especially the seniors who put four years into the program and came out and gave it their all. It’s tough to go out like this,” related Morgan.
At 9:03 p.m. Saturday the official press release came across, “Sullivan South will take the place of Cleveland in the Class 5A football playoff bracket due to an error in the tie-breaking procedure. They will travel to Columbia Central in the first round of the playoffs.”
“The reason Sullivan South has qualified for the playoffs and Cleveland does not qualify for the playoffs is due to an error in determining the final Wild Card spots in 5A based on the tie-breaking procedure.”
In the end, Sullivan South had played Enka High School out of North Carolina. Enka played 11 games on the season and finished 5-6, showing that Sullivan South had played one less opponent under .500.
However, due to Section II. B. of the TSSAA Football Regulations only the first 10 games played shall be counted. Under that rule Enka then counted as a 5-5 team, adding to the number of teams that Sullivan South has played who have won 50 percent or more of their games. A set of circumstances that put Sullivan South ahead of Cleveland in the tiebreaker procedure.
“We left the field house about 2:30 Saturday morning. You can see on the board over there that we had already put the bracket together and it looked like we were done. We knew we were out when we left the office that night,” explained a weary Crawford Sunday afternoon.
“I didn’t even bother to check the brackets Saturday morning, but my phone kept blowing up and when I answered, people kept telling me we were in. At that point I thought we had just made a mistake in our calculations.”
“Later that night my phone blew up again, and I was told there was something in the wind. Then the TSSAA called and apologized and handled the situation very professionally. In the end we can only really point the finger at ourselves. If we win one more game we are in the playoffs. It’s a great lesson for all of us. Don’t put yourself in a position to be an at large team.”
“My heart goes out to our seniors. We thought we had closure Friday night, and even though it wasn’t pleasant closure we were still going to come in Monday and send those guys off with a great big thank you. Then, everyone gets all excited Saturday. Then they get heartbroken again that night. Life’s not always fair and people make mistakes. All I can say is that I’m gonna love these guys and coach the heck out of them,” Crawford concluded.
For those that remain to don a Blue Raider uniform next season this scenario will not be forgotten.
“We should have taken care of business out on the field. We should have beat Bradley. We should have beat McMinn. We should have beat Rhea. We were 12 points away form being an 8-2 football team. That’s something that’s going to be hard to deal with this off season, but it is something that will be made up for next year,” said junior starting quarterback Austin Herink.
“All that being said though, I do think something should be done, especially for those 11 seniors. To have your high school career ended on a mistake is devastating. Not only for the players, but the parents too. These folks will never get to see their kids play high school football again.”
“Everyone gets their hopes up for another game and it’s just not going to be there anymore. It would really boost my respect for the TSSAA if they would just come over here and give a face-to-face apology. I’d really like an explanation, just to us as a team,” he expressed.
Many are calling for the organization to go back to the drawing board in regards to the football postseason.
Earlier this year, the TSSAA recommended returning to the five classification system, but the move was voted down by organization’s board of control.
However, even under the previous system audible grumbling erupted around the state due to the number of sub-.500 teams advancing when the playoffs came around.
While neither system might be the best answer moving forward, it is alarming to note that in the official press release the TSSAA did state, “This is not the first time that a mistake has been found after the initial release of the brackets. In every situation in the past, it has been dealt with by making the correction that affects the least amount of teams in the bracket.”
But, the fact of the matter is that in the end, teams are affected when these mistakes are made. Kids, coaches and parents that have dedicated massive chunks of time and energy find themselves on the short end of the stick, having their season ended by a broken promise and a computer error.