Lowndes takes aim at rival Valdosta

VALDOSTA, Ga. -- There's a special reverence among tall pines, live oaks and magnolia trees that surround green pastures in south Georgia, where autumn nights find fields alight and transformed into cathedrals of a sort.

Friday night, a congregation will squirm into Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, arguably the heart of the religion of high school football.

The pending sermon? It's high time for the boys to start walking the walk again because Valdosta's Wildcats haven't been relevant for a while.

When you've played football since 1913, won more games (842-193-34) than any high school program in the nation while stockpiling 23 state and six mythical national titles, expectations rise over those treetops and higher than Valdosta's 29-25 record since '04, and 14-14 mark since '06.

What a great time for crosstown rival Lowndes, the county school, to travel a few short miles into town to take measure of the city boys in front of a national audience (ESPNU, 8 p.m. ET).

If you're inclined to predict high drama, try to ignore that Lowndes (6-0) is No. 2 in the nation in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 rankings, that the Vikings are defending state Class AAAAA champions, and winners of three of the past four Georgia big school titles.

Don't dwell on the fact a Lowndes win Friday at Valdosta (4-2) would make them the first team ever to beat the Wildcats five years running.

The Cats are trying to forget.

"After four years [winning], you know they're cocky. We plan to just get after them," said Valdosta senior defensive tackle Parker Mathis. "I have friends there. My friend will be like, 'You know we're undefeated, right?' And I'll say, 'I know. We'll see you Friday.'"

Valdosta's gold and black faithful wish they could purge the knowledge that Lowndes coach Randy McPherson's machine is 72-12 since his arrival in 2002.

But this will be the lords of Georgia prep football's old testament, the Wildcats, who whipped Lowndes the first nine meetings by a combined score of 268-26 and won 30 of the first 35, versus the rulers of the new.

The Vikings have won eight of the past 11, not to mention four state titles since Valdosta won its most recent in 1998 -- the Wildcats' longest drought since their first Georgia crown in 1940.

"You can't really even go to get your haircut without talking junk about Valdosta and Lowndes," said Lowndes star Greg Reid, owner of an 11.4-yard rushing average, nine rushing touchdowns, three receptions for 79 yards, a 20.5-yard kickoff return average, a 22.8-yard punt return average and five interceptions.

"Last Thursday, there were a couple Valdosta fans in [the barber shop], a couple Lowndes fans, and it was all about who was going to win and how it would make Valdosta's season if they beat us."

The Vikings are like, well, vikings.

They attempted one official pass in Friday's 24-7 win over Northwide of Warner Robins, which had won the past two state class AAAA titles before moving up to AAAAA this season.

Northside's 35-game winning streak went Poof! in a cloud of Lowndes' wing-T offense, a multi-bladed jackhammer with ever-whirling parts in gifted wingbacks Reid, a Florida commit; Gerald Demps, a Florida State commit; and quarterback/wingbacks Khary Franklin and Tyler Hunter.

"Personnel dictates it, but here's the deal: We're going to going to run to set up the pass," McPherson said. "We're going to throw the ball when we want to, not when we've got to."

Valdosta's third-year coach, Rick Tomberlin, prefers a black and blue approach, too, but not as much as he did during a 14-year run at Washington County, where he was 157-31 while winning three state class AA titles.

"We kind of gravitated a little more toward a passing offense," said Tomberlin, whose senior quarterback, Kyle Rowe, is a first-year starter. "But we still want to rattle the chains and bring the pain. Part of it is we don't have a lot of large players. We've got a lot of runners, some fairly good receivers."

Valdosta fans would like to forget that Lowndes won back-to-back state titles in '04-'05 -- outscoring opponents 1,100-200 -- and that Lowndes has drilled nearly everybody in its path lately.

This is a tale of princes and the paupers who grew up to kick sand in the faces of royalty.

There are differences between the county and the city schools, although both have remarkable, renovated stadiums.

Lowndes works out at a sparkling, new 5,000-square foot weight room, with a new field house.

"You can tell by this facility [Bazemore-Hyder Stadium], that everything does not mirror that," said Tomberlin, who took the Valdosta job in '06. "We need to upgrade our weight room, our locker room, our coaches' facilities and not just football, but all sports. We need a new field house desperately."

The fast-talking, flat-topped Tomberlin has been on both sides.

He was run out of Lowndes in '91 after three seasons as head coach, even though he was the first coach in school history -- dating back to 1966 -- to leave with a record that wasn't below .500 (he was 15-15 with three losses to Valdosta).

There have been changes since he left and came back.

U.S. Census data and projections show an increase in Lowndes County's population of about 9,000 people between 2000 and '07, but just 2,000 or so of those folks took up residence within the Valdosta city limits.

And success attracts talent, and not just in coaches like McPherson, who took over after coach Milt Miller retired after a 10-year stretch that included three region titles and Lowndes' second state crown (in '99).

Franklin, Lowndes' junior starting quarterback, came up in Valdosta's school system. So did talented sophomore two-way player Hunter and others.

"My first year in Lowndes was second semester of eighth grade [as Valdosta was changing coaches]," said Franklin. "My parents moved to the county, and also I wanted to play for Lowndes."

Hunter's father, former Dolphins and Bucs wide receiver Brice Hunter, played for Valdosta. No matter. Tyler said he wasn't close to his dad, who lived in Chicago until 2004, when he was killed in a dispute with a neighbor.

So the son moved between sixth and seventh grade from the Valdosta district to Lowndes', between McPherson's first and second state titles.

"The way the school is, it's a better school system," he said. "It was just me and my mom that decided."

Lowndes has roughly 2,800 students, Valdosta about 1,800.

So there's been a redistribution of wealth in Valdosta-Lowndes County.

The Wildcats are still more blessed than most, with players like left tackle Tony Taylor, a Tennessee commit, and linebacker Mike Gilliard, a Georgia commit whose picture is on the Lowndes locker room wall.

Truthfully, this is less about hatred, or about vandals painting graffiti on property of both schools, as they have this week.

"I go fishing with some of those guys [Lowndes players] about every weekend," said Valdosta senior quarterback Rowe. "My girlfriend, Morgan Harris, plays softball there. She said she's cheering for me."

Baseline scripture: this matters.

"A while ago I was invited to a church with my family, and this man came up to me and he was probably pushing 85," McPherson said. "He said, 'Coach, my son is an engineer now, graduated from Georgia Tech. He intercepted the pass in 1977 against [Valdosta quarterback] Buck Belue and ran it right down the sideline to win, and that was the first time Lowndes beat Valdosta [7-2].'

"That was all he wanted to talk about. This game comes up in one form or another almost every day."

McPherson laughed about the tale of former Viking Bill Scheffler as if he'd been there instead of hearing about it over and over.

Friday night, the Wildcats will look for a Scheffler of their own.

Matt Winkeljohn recently left The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.