WINDER - The rise of Apalachee's football program has been a steady climb.
The first major milestones were the program's initial win over neighborhood rival Winder-Barrow in 2006, then the first-ever playoff appearances that year and in '07. Next came the school's winningest season at 7-4 last season.
"Now, a lot of the kids are talking, 'What's next?'" Wildcats coach Shane Davis said this preseason. "Our goal this year is to win the region (8-AAAA) championship, but there are a lot of good football teams we're going to have to beat if we're going to take (our program) to the next level."
That likely means having to beat visiting Clarke Central in a showdown of the region's only undefeated teams today at Apalachee.
Though only the Wildcats' third game and the Gladiators' fourth, tonight's 7:30 matchup at Apalachee is for the region lead. Apalachee (2-0, 2-0) was many people's preseason favorite to win the region, and Clarke Central (3-0, 3-0) has demonstrated its right to be mentioned similarly.
The Gladiators have won 14 region championships, but only one this decade, in 2003. Apalachee, which only began football this decade, is still hungry for its first title.
"Winning a region title would be huge for our program, for our entire community," Davis said. "Region titles don't come around often. We want to host a playoff game. To even be talking about possibly winning a championship is awesome."
Clarke comes in on a roll, enjoying its first 3-0 start since 2003, when it began 5-0 and finished 9-2. The Gladiators turned last week's interception against Habersham Central on the first play of the game into a 23-7 win. Martay Mattox' 181 yards passing and Dimitri Holmes' 109 receiving helped overcome 125 penalty yards in that game.
Like Clarke, Apalachee has held its last two opponents to a touchdown or less. And while the Wildcats' defense has held strong, Apalachee's offense has been in gear too. Running back John Ansley leads the charge with three touchdowns in two games, most recently a 65-yarder that keyed a 12-6 victory over Cedar Shoals before the team's idle date last Friday. Reggie Battle chipped in a running TD in Apalachee's previous two games as well.
Davis said it's hard to understate the importance of tonight's game.
"I'm not going to sit here and downplay it all," he said of tonight's region title-like clash. "After (tonight), somebody's going to be in the driver's seat (for the region championship), definitely."