The SEC of High School Football
By BJ Bennett
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin. Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page
The Valdosta, Georgia-area will be the nationally-known centerpiece for one of the greatest three month melee's high school football has ever seen.
If Friday night lights showcase the best of small town USA, there are over a half-dozen stadiums snuggled up around the Okefenokee that need all bonfires, fireflies and high-beams put on immediate standby. While storied football is played every season in parts of the Lonestar, Sunshine states and beyond, the most competitive region in the nation may stretch from the marshes of the Intercoastal out west to peanut country in a slim sliver of the state of Georgia nestled right up against the Florida line.
Through realignment and reclassification has emerged a collection of teams, and coaches, as staggering as any you will find. Y'all pull up a chair, it's time for kickoff in Region I-AAAAAA.
"There's excitement entering every high school football season in south Georgia, but this is a bit different for sure," explained Kevin Thomas, host of "The Afternoon Blitz" on The Fan Sports Radio 103.7, ESPN Radio Southeast Georgia. "Everyone is discussing region one and who will emerge from this season on top. The debate has been going on all summer here. Take your pick."
Any talk of high school football anywhere has to start in the "Azalea City", a metro community of upwards of 140,000 people in what essentially serves as the capital of the ultra-southern part of the state. Valdosta, known now as ESPN's "Titletown", is home to the most storied program in prep football history: Valdosta High School. This fall the Wildcats will cap a full century's worth of excellence. To date, the 'Cats are 869-205-34 with 23 state championships and six national titles -- not that anyone's counting. Famed Cleveland Field at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium has memories a book couldn't hold and amenities some colleges can't match. NCAA Division II champion Valdosta State plays their home games at the venue. Due to the site's charm and stature, each season's storyline comes through its famed gates even when the region's best team necessarily doesn't.
While Valdosta High School stands alone as the nation's winningest prep program, they share the spotlight locally with fellow pigskin power Lowndes. Just a few miles down the road, the mighty Vikings have won four state championships since 1999 and have controlled the series in recent editions of the "Winnersville Classic". Lowndes has become a proverbial feeder system to major college football, producing players such as Vincent Burns, Josh Harvey-Clemons, Jay Ratliff, Greg Reid and Telvin Smith. Martin Stadium, more affably known as "The Concrete Palace", was the home site for last year's nationally-televised tussle with VHS on ESPNU.
The Valdosta area will be the nationally-known centerpiece for one of the greatest three month melee's high school football has ever seen.
"I think the newly-aligned Region 1-AAAAAA has to be right up there with the strongest ever leagues in Georgia and, for that matter, the nation as a whole," stated journalist and Moultrie-native Murray Poole, sports editor of The Brunswick News from 1965-2005. "I say right up there because you have to remember the old Region 1-AAA used to include a Valdosta High team that was at the height of its greatness. And then my alma mater, Moultrie High, now Colquitt County, was a power year in and year out and in the late 1950s and early 60s you also had a dominating Albany High team, which in fact won the state championship in 1959 but is now only a shadow of its former self due to all the other high schools that have cropped up in Albany."
For area football veterans like Poole, the recent reconfiguration is stirring memories of south Georgia's golden days from the past. With the influx of two new teams from the east, there's a novel feel to the new alignment. There remains a valued tie to the past, however, for this region rich in history and tradition.
"Also in that region were then powers Columbus High, the now defunct Lanier High and Willingham of Macon, etc. Later, of course, the addition of a powerful Lowndes High team only enhanced that region's reputation," Poole continued of the famed conference of old. "But, certainly, this new region we're looking at this fall should stack up with that great 1-AAA of the past."
While Region I has long been a power player in the state of Georgia, the addition of Camden County adds more sizzle to the griddle. The three-time state champion Wildcats, all titles coming in the last decade, are arguably Georgia's top major-classification program. Having played in a far-less competitive region, these Wildcats have beefed up their resume by playing and beating the likes of Aiken (SC), First Coast (FL), Glenville (OH), Hoover (AL), Miami Central (FL) and Treasure Coast (FL) in year's past. Fans are anxiously awaiting their debut in what some are calling the toughest region in the country. Camden's 2012 senior class is ready for the transition and loaded with FBS recruiting talent, including Georgia commitments quarterback Brice Ramsey and cornerback J.J. Green.
Of the nationally-known Camden, Lowndes and Valdosta programs, none of them are the highest-ranked region team in the recently-released state AAAAAA poll. That distinction belongs to Colquitt County, who slots second behind only Robert Nkemdeche's Grayson Rams. The Packers are fresh off of a run to the state semifinals that included a one-point triumph over Camden in the quarterfinals. Colquitt fell 35-31 to Grayson in the final four in a pairing that has been recreated this summer atop the polls. The Packers have one state crown, that run coming in 1994. That season, they defeated Valdosta in the title bout.
While Colquitt (2), Camden (3), Lowndes (6) and Valdosta (10) make up 40% of the AJC AAAAAA rankings, Brunswick High, Coffee County and Tift County bring even more depth into the fold as they round out the region. On the surface, this is a grouping that looks like it could be the best around. Beneath it, comes greater affirmation. The region's head coaches have resumes that have the ink-jet taking a knee. Of the seven coaches in the region, six of them have won at least two state championships. The other, Brunswick's Victor Floyd, has made title game appearances with two different teams and lost by a total of three points.
The most notable name may be one of the newest. Coffee County's Robby Pruitt comes to Douglas as one of the most accomplished coaches in history. Starting his career in Florida, Pruitt won a combined seven state titles in a ten-year span at Jacksonville University Christian and Union County. During his esteemed tenure there, Pruitt went a combined 167-30, won a record 52 straight games and claimed more state titles than any Florida high school coach before him. He was named the NFICA National Coach of the Year in 1996, the Bobby Dodd National Coach of the Year in 1998, was inducted into the Florida High School Athletic Hall of Fame and was named one of the 12 greatest high school football coaches in state history. In 2000, he took over a Fitzgerald (GA) program that had won just nine games in five years. That fall, he took them to the state championship. He has since gone 126-25-1 as a head coach in Georgia.
From the top by order of state titles, Colquitt's Rush Probst is next in line. He has five championships, all coming from his days at power Hoover in Alabama. Under his tenure, the Buccaneers were a regular in the national polls of Sports Illustrated and USA Today. He became a recognizable name when Hoover was featured on the hit MTV reality series "Two-A-Days". Since coming to Georgia, he has taken a Packer program that won two games the year before he arrived to the state semifinals twice and one state championship game.
Camden's Jeff Herron brings four rings with him to Region I, three from his time in Kingsland and one from Oconee County. His Wildcats have gone 125-12 over the past decade, going a perfect 15-0 in 2003 and 2008. Herron has been named state coach of the year nine different times and, in 2003, he was selected as the NFL's National Coach of the Year. In 2009, the AJC named Herron's Wildcats as one of the state's programs of the decade. He moves west from what was region 3-AAAAA.
"His state championships speak for themselves and his record against out of state competition is pretty stellar as well," Thomas added. "It will be interesting to see him match wits this season with other top coaches week in and week out in this new region."
Randy McPherson at Lowndes is the only coach in the region to claim a state championship in both Florida and Georgia. He won a title south of the border back in 2001 with Madison County and later went back-to-back with the Vikings in 2004 and 2005. Most importantly, in the eyes of some fans, McPherson has gone 7-3 in ten years against crosstown rival Valdosta. Last year was the first time in his tenure where Lowndes lost more than three games in a single season; three of the four defeats were by a single score.
Valdosta's Rance Gillespie has overseen a relative return of sorts in his short stint with the Wildcats. Coming back to high school football from Georgia Southern, he took Valdosta to the state quarterfinals and an 11-2 record in his first season in 2010. Last year, the 'Cats won their first region championship since 2003 and defeated rival Lowndes on the road 21-17. The former Georgia Bulldog defensive back won consecutive state titles in 2005 and 2006 while head coach at Peach County.
In addition to Coffee's Pruitt, Tift's John Reid is in his first season at his new job. He takes over after compiling a 60-15 record in six seasons at East Paulding. Prior to coming to Georgia, Reid won back-to-back state championships in 2005 and 2006 with Alcoa High School in Tennessee. He takes over a Blue Devils program that has missed out on the postseason for three straight years.
Like Herron and Camden, Floyd's Brunswick Pirates will enter region I from the coast via realignment. Floyd is the lone head coach in the new league without a state championship, though he has lost in two different state finals. In 2004, Floyd took Dudley High School to the North Carolina championship before losing by one point. In 2007, he took Chester High School to the South Carolina championship and lost by two points. His program shifts over from region 2-AAAA.
"When you have Herron's Camden County Wildcats, who have won three state crowns under Herron's reign, moving into a region that includes Valdosta, Colquitt County, Lowndes, Tift County, Coffee County and, yes, a Brunswick High team that has a nice football history of its own, you're talking about a league that is deservedly being tabbed 'the SEC of high school football'," Poole exclaimed.
The high school football season starts this weekend and two 1-AAAAAA teams will be on a statewide stage in Georgia's premier season-opening display. Camden and Colquitt are set to participate in the Corky Kell Classic in the Georgia Dome, squaring off against Peachtree Ridge and North Gwinnett, respectively. Brunswick will take part in the first-ever Erk Russell Classic, facing Wayne County at Paulson Stadium in Statesboro. Coffee will be on the road at Whitewater. Lowndes, Tift and Valdosta will each begin play next Friday night.
Only four of the seven 1-AAAAAA teams will advance to the GHSA postseason. As kickoff approaches, it's difficult to project a favorite.
"This inaugural year of this region, I would have to make Camden and Colquitt the preseason co-favorites, the Wildcats because of Division I commitments Brice Ramsey, J.J. Green, J.P. Vonashek and Jarrad Davis and the Packers because of returning talent on both sides of the ball including big senior QB Cole Segraves and offensive tackle Octavious Jackson. But hey, how about a Valdosta team that hammered highly-regarded Ware County 35-10 in a preseason scrimmage and a Lowndes team that routed Thomasville 52-0 the same night? It truly ought to be something to watch this season and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see the eventual champion have two or more region setbacks," Poole reflected.
High school football showcases the passion and pride of communities all across the country. It's a scene that's similar in thousands of stadiums each and every fall Friday night. Family, friends and neighbors will soon gather to watch the best their towns have to offer. Fans of Region I-AAAAAA in deep South Georgia, may very well be watching the best the nation has to offer as well.