published Friday, September 21st, 2012

Hixson comeback spirit stirring fans

Hixson High School's Allante Novene, 33, makes a tackle during practice Wednesday.
Hixson High School's Allante Novene, 33, makes a tackle during practice Wednesday.
Photo by Allison Love.

Two weeks ago Marion County's football team was riding high when it traveled to Hixson. The next week Hixson visited neighboring District 6-AA rival Red Bank to take on a program it hadn't beaten since 2004.

Two come-from-behind victories later, the Wildcats are 3-1 under first-year coach, promoter and preacher Jason Fitzgerald.

"We've played hard and not given up the last two weeks," Fitzgerald said. "With our backs to the wall, our kids have just kept playing. The big thing I'm trying to preach is to go play every play, no matter what the situation or the score is. Play 48 minutes, and we've done that for the last two games."

The last five seasons Hixson has a combined record of 15-35. Marion County has had recent struggles, too, but getting off to a 3-0 start seemed to have given the Warriors some early confidence. The Wildcats fought back from 13 points behind early in the fourth quarter to win that one 36-27.

Fitzgerald referred to his team as "little brother" opposite Red Bank, which not only had beaten the Wildcats seven consecutive years but the first six of those by at least 20 points. Hixson trailed the Lions by 20 this time heading into the fourth quarter and pulled it out 36-35.

"Eventually little brother has to grow up," Fitzgerald said. "We were lucky enough to come out on top Friday night."

After his career as an offensive lineman at Auburn, Fitzgerald returned home to Rhea County and spent 18 years in various roles on the Golden Eagles' sideline. Looking for a new challenge, he found one at Hixson and began laying the groundwork for this season well before it started.

Fitzgerald said one of the first things he did after being hired was to visit local businesses to see what support, and what potential support, was out there. Now that the Wildcats are where they are, the coach said he was informed early this week that a local church had passed around an offering plate Sunday and intends to donate that money to the football program.

"To go anywhere and change the culture, the only way to change the culture is to win," Fitzgerald said.

Interest around school was drummed up early on. Seventy showed up for tryouts.

"We had to order extra equipment," Fitzgerald said. "It's tough on our booster club, but it's a good problem to have."

The Wildcats first managed to shake off an opening-week loss to a revitalized Class 5A Walker Valley team.

"Fighting through adversity has been a problem around here," Hixson senior guard and defensive end Chance Loy said. "When we'd get down, we seemed to stay down. Hopefully we're starting to change that. The community is behind us a lot now. That hasn't always been the story the last four years."

Another senior, wide receiver Allante Novene, had eight receptions for 80 yards against Red Bank and also ran 76 yards for a touchdown to help spark that comeback. He ran on the Class AAA state-title-winning 4x400 relay team last season and is not the only speedster on the football team.

"You don't have to block long," Loy said. "They're going to be past you in a second."

Novene, in turn, credited the line for springing some big plays.

"That was a big question mark coming into this season," Novene said. "Those guys have stepped up."

The rejuvenation project was greatly illustrated by last Friday's visitors' side bleachers being completely full. Novene praised the school's spirit squad, the Hixson Boys, for providing an elevated noise level.

"The fans were really into it," said Fitzgerald, who noted some had to find seats on the Red Bank side. "That's like having an extra man."

The Class 3A Wildcats are about to embark on a rugged three-week stretch in the schedule, all road games against teams with a combined 12-2 record and ranked in the Associated Press state poll. It starts with tonight's game at 8 EDT at Smithville against DeKalb County, ranked seventh in Class 4A. Then come trips to District 6-AA opponents Tyner, No. 7 in Class 3A, and East Hamilton, No. 4 in 4A.

Hixson will close the regular season with games against three district opponents, all currently winless. A winning record, which the Wildcats haven't had since going 6-4 in 2006, could be within reach.

Perhaps there's one more role Fitzgerald is portraying, and that's salesman. An entire football team and its community seem to be buying in.

"By no means are we there yet," Fitzgerald said, "but we're on the right track."

about Kelley Smiddie...

Kelley Smiddie is a sports writer who has worked at the Times Free Press for 12 years. He covers high school sports and softball. Kelley’s hometown is Chattanooga, and he graduated from Brainerd High School and graduated Chattanooga State and UTC. Contact Kelley at 423-757-6653 or ksmiddie@timesfreepress.com.

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