CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- Allante Novene just can't stop smiling.
The Hixson High senior has known for more than two weeks that his team was in the playoffs. However, that reality didn't sink in until this week.
"It felt good the last two weeks knowing that we'd be going to the playoffs, and then actually winning games to improve our seed," Novene said. "But Saturday morning, seeing the brackets and actually seeing that we were really in? That was awesome."
It's a feeling Jason Fitzgerald has felt before, just not at Hixson. The former Rhea County coach has plenty of postseason experience, but his team has none.
"Once it's been so long since you've been here, it's just good to see your name on the bracket," Fitzgerald said. "Wherever you go, home game or away game, we just want to be a part of it."
It's the same feeling for Hixson's first round opponent in the Wildcats' first playoff trip since 2005.
Notre Dame, with a record of 5-5, barley snuck into the playoffs last year for the first time since 2006. This year the Irish went 8-2 to earn the right to host the Class 4A opening round contest this Friday, and they did it with more than 90-percent of their production coming from freshmen and sophomores.
"It's going to be a fantastic atmosphere," said Notre Dame head coach Charles Fant. "Both programs are heading in the right direction, and it's been awhile since we've been here."
Fitzgerald has made quite a splash at Hixson, a program that's had little success in the last three decades.
With a blue collar approach and a never-say-die attitude, the Wildcats (7-3) hit the seven-win plateau for just the second time in the last 26 years. Along the way Hixson enjoyed its first win over rival Red Bank since 2004, and the first over rival Tyner since 1991.
"Everyone always asked what it was going take to get the kids believing," Fitzgerald said. "I told them we have to beat someone we haven't beaten in a long time. We got the Red Bank win and then we got the Tyner win. After that, they believed they can beat anybody they play."
Hixson's three losses are all against fellow playoff teams, with its lone district loss coming from 6-AA champ East Hamilton. The Wildcats locked up a playoff spot by finishing second in their district with a 6-1 mark, then boosted their seeding by rallying for wins over Brainerd and Central the last two weeks.
In all, Hixson has rallied to erase a second-half deficit in each of its last six wins.
"They're killing me in that regard," Fitzgerald said with a smile. "I told them we're just going to start the game in the third quarter this week."
Fant would likely agree to that, noting that his team has also played better after intermission this year. However, from start to finish this season they've exceeded expectations.
Notre Dame went just 9-22 the last three seasons under head coach Josh Sellers, who resigned following the 2011 campaign.
Fant, formerly the team's offensive coordinator, was able to find the right blend of youthful confidence and motivated experience to turn the program around.
"We have a bunch of seniors that were just sick and tired of losing," Fant said. "Then most of these freshman and sophomores just didn't know any better. They weren't here when Notre Dame was 1-9 and 3-7. They don't know about what's happened.
"The result has been magic for us."
Most of that magic has come from underclassmen, with freshman quarterback Alex Darras and freshman running back Ricky Ballard leading the way. The group learned from a few early mistakes, including an ugly blowout home loss to McMinn Central, and rallied to finish second in District 7-AA to lock up a second-straight playoff berth.
"We just come to work hard every day," said Darras, who actually started the season as the backup before taking over for injured starter Tanner Webb. "We don't really think about what's happened here in the past. We just go out there each week and try to win right now."
And that's the goal for both teams in unfamiliar territory this week.
As exciting as it was to see their names in the Class 4A bracket last Saturday, that high has already worn off.
"It's great when you haven't been to the playoffs and you finally make it, but it's not worth anything if you don't do anything in the playoffs," Novene said. "Now it's up to us to actually try to make something happen."
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