Grayson's Denzel Nkemdiche picks up 10 yards as North Gwinnett's Trey Short (24) dives for the tackle.
Every high school football coach in Georgia wants to coach there at least once. Cleveland Field at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium has that kind of lure.
It’s the home of legendary Valdosta, winner of 23 state and six mythical national titles. The stadium seats more than 10,000 fans and it is said to have ghosts that haunt opposing teams.
GRAYSON AT VALDOSTA
Who: Grayson Rams (8-AAAAA) at Valdosta Wildcats (1-AAAAA)
When: Friday, 8 p.m.
Where: Valdosta High School (I-75 south to Exit 22 and turn right on Ga. Hwy. 41. Follow for approximately four miles. Take a slight left on Inner Perimeter Road and follow for two miles. Turn right on North Forrest Street)
Coaches: Mickey Conn, Grayson; Rance Gillespie, Valdosta
Records: Grayson 9-3; Valdosta 11-1
Last week: Grayson beat North Gwinnett 23-19; Valdosta beat McEachern 31-28
Winner plays: Mill Creek-Colquitt County winner
Rushing: Korey Jones, 435 yards
Passing: Nick Schuessler, 1,475 yards
Receiving: Korey Jones, 360 yards
Tackles: Michael Peek, 102
Tre McQueen, 85
Interceptions: Peek, 4
Rushing: Phillip Moore, 982 yards
Passing: Ryan Whilden, 2,676 yards
Receiving: Malcolm Mitchell, 1,365 yards
Grayson Rams (9-3)
vs. Kell* L 10-13
vs. Spain Park** W 20-9
Archer W 55-0
at Berkmar W 58-16
Shiloh W 48-0
at Dacula W 16-10
Parkview W 28-13
at South Gwinnett L 24-22
at Brookwood L 10-0
Central Gwinnett W 38-18
North Forsyth W 31-0
at North Gwinnett W 23-19
**At North Gwinnett
Valdosta Wildcats (11-1)
Brooks County W 35-0
Hardaway W 36-0
Lincoln (Fla.) W 35-31
Brunswick W 64-62 (OT)
Lee (Ala.) W 19-0
at M.L. King W 43-28
Lowndes L 24-17
Coffee W 42-24
at Tift County W 21-7
at Colquitt County W 36-29
Windsor Forest W 34-13
at McEachern W 31-28
All of that tradition makes it the most recognized setting for Georgia high school football. Grayson head coach Mickey Conn made his first coaching trip to Valdosta back in 1998 as a young South Gwinnett assistant. His Comets left with a 41-7 loss that night in the Class AAAA quarterfinals.
“Not much went right for us that night,” Conn said. “Maybe this will be a better trip.”
On that last trip, Conn’s South team was an upstart group coming off an 0-10 season. But this time he brings a team to the city dubbed “Winnersville, USA” that is battle-tested — Grayson is in the quarterfinals for the fourth straight year.
Despite that, the Rams (9-3) go into Friday’s game with Valdosta as underdogs. Grayson suffered major graduation losses from its previous two teams, relegating it to the No. 3 seed from Region 8-AAAAA after losses to rivals Brookwood and South Gwinnett.
The Rams now must beat an 11-1 Valdosta team that has lost just once, when it let a lead slip away late to rival Lowndes.
“We kind of like it, this is how we started the program as underdogs,” Conn said. “Either way is fine with us, though, underdogs or favorites. We’re just glad we’re still playing football. We’re excited to be here. I don’t think anybody gave us much of a chance to get here.”
Few expected a Grayson win last Friday against nationally-ranked North Gwinnett. But the Rams controlled the game from the start, forcing turnovers and building a 23-0 lead. North scrapped back and scored on the game’s final play to make it a 23-19 win.
The biggest surprise in the North victory was an exceptional effort by Grayson’s ball-control offense. After being shut out by Brookwood, it has produced 38, 31 and 23 points the last three games.
The 23 may have been the hardest to come by against North and its strong defense. But Grayson used brothers Denzel and Robert Nkemdiche and Michael Peek more on offense — all three are defensive leaders — as a spark. And while it wasn’t as glamorous, using defensive end Nnamdi Ofodile at offensive guard has given the offense a major lift.
“(Ofodile) is kind of the unsung hero in all of this,” Conn said.
Nick Schuessler also has developed into the Rams’ biggest passing threat in recent seasons.
“I think we’re a lot better offensively now than we were earlier,” Conn said. “I think Nick’s starting to come into his own. His completion rate is great. When he hits those big plays it’s important because everybody loads the box (against the run), so that’s a big difference.”
Valdosta’s offense has rolled up gaudy statistics all season, building a 34.4 scoring average. The Wildcats have been exceptional in their versatile attack from 6-foot-6 tight end Jay Rome, a coveted college prospect, to wideout Malcolm Mitchell to running back Phillip Moore, who had 209 rushing yards in last Friday’s win at McEachern.
Mitchell has 74 catches for 1,365 yards and 13 touchdowns and Rome has 39 catches for 753 yards and seven scores, giving quarterback Ryan Whilden two big-time targets. Whilden has thrown for 2,676 yards and 27 TDs.
That group will match up with a defense that has led Grayson all season. The Rams give up just 11 points per game.
“I think we’re really fast on defense,” Conn said. “We’re starting to play really well on that side of the ball.”