At one time, the Central Gwinnett-Collins Hill rivalry was full of passion.
Barely separated geographically - Mapquest says it's a 7.07-mile drive - the two schools also had an intense history in the early days after Collins Hill opened in 1994. The new school drew a large portion of its student population from the Central district, creating a competition between the two schools and ultimately dropping the Black Knights down a classification because of the enrollment lost to Collins Hill.
The two programs played each other in emotional season openers from 1996 to 1999, but didn't play in 2000 and 2001 because Central was in a lower classification. They resumed the matchup the following two years, but the division of Gwinnett's teams into different regions has eliminated the rivalry game from the regular season.
Central and Collins Hill renew the rivalry tonight in Suwanee with higher stakes than ever in the first round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs.
"It's playing a crosstown rival," Central head coach Bradley Warren said about tonight's game. "I don't care who that is, it's always a fun week of practice and fun on Friday night."
Warren, in his fourth season at Central, wasn't around for the early matchups between the two programs. He faced Collins Hill in 2002 and 2003, both losses by the Black Knights.
The Eagles have a decided edge in the series, winning five of the six meetings. Collins Hill head coach Larry Sherrill, a longtime assistant to previous head coach Alan Fahring, remembers the first time the schools played in 1996, a 16-13 Collins Hill victory.
"I don't know that our guys, because they were so young when Collins Hill was formed, know how (intense) it was with (Central)," Sherrill said. "But most of our kids came from Central, some from other places, but the bulk of the kids came from Central. I know it was a big deal the first time we beat Central. Our guys were really jacked up.
"It's been awhile since we've played. For the fans it will be exciting, close rivals and two big-name running backs going head-to-head."
The two running backs Sherrill mentioned are his top guy, Rock Robinson, and Central's Beau Johnson, together two of the hardest runners in the county. Robinson has rushed for 1,798 yards and Johnson has rushed for 1,512 yards. Central also has Yusuf Holloway, who has run for 565 yards.
That Collins Hill (6-4) is at this point is a surprise to some. The Eagles were hit hard by graduation, but a young team has given them a home playoff game for the second straight year.
Central also is in the playoffs for a second straight time, but is searching for an elusive postseason win - the Black Knights last won a playoff game in 1993.
"(My players) are excited about the opportunity to do that," Warren said of breaking the playoff win drought. "I think they'll play really hard to get it."