Old rivalry gets new venue

Photo by Christine Troyke

Photo by Christine Troyke

ATLANTA -- John Small and Todd Wofford hung toward the back amidst the group of 12 high school football coaches in the underbelly of the Georgia Dome on Tuesday afternoon. The two coaches sat next to each other and chatted until the event announcing the participants in the first Great American Football Classic ended.

When it was over, they shook hands and left.

Come September, the only thing that will stay the same will be the handshake.

For the first time in the history of South Gwinnett and Central Gwinnett, the teams will play a game in the Georgia Dome, facing off in the showcase matchup of the two-day, six-game event on Sept. 17. And the stakes couldn't be higher.

It's a Region 8-AAAAA game. It's Gwinnett's oldest football rivalry. It's at the Georgia Dome. It will be broadcast online by sponsor iHigh.com.

"Everything about it is big," said Wofford, Central's second-year head coach. "It's motivation for me, it's motivation for the kids and it's motivation all around."

It's taken time, but Small has built a consistent winner at South Gwinnett with his spread offense and it's a model Wofford, who runs a similar style, hope to emulate.

Last year, Central finished 9-3 with a playoff loss to Mill Creek. Central ended the year 4-6 and missed the playoffs. Head-to-head, South thumped the Black Knights 62-27.

But that was last season. South graduated a big class and Central enters its second year with Wofford.

"Anytime you play Central Gwinnett, it's the oldest rivalry in Gwinnett County, so you could play it out in the parking lot and it's going to be intense," South's Small said. "I think this just amplifies it a little bit, being in the Georgia Dome. It allows people to come back and watch the game that may not have seen the game in a while. I know our kids are excited. It's going to be a great game."

Wofford went so far to suggest former Central players slip on their old letter jackets.

And for the current players, the news of the venue upgrade, complete with new turf installed at the Dome, gave a boost to morale during summer workouts.

"They are pumped about it. Any kid would be to get a chance to do this," Small said. "Other schools in the county have been fortunate the last couple of years to get to do it every other year or every year. South Gwinnett and Central Gwinnett have not been able to for whatever reason. This is a great opportunity for our school and our community."

When Wofford told his players, it sent off rounds of calls and texts to teammates.

"I kind of mentioned it to the kids at the beginning of the summer and they were fired up about it," he said. "They are excited about it and they are killing it in conditioning to not embarrass themselves."

Along with the Comets and Black Knights, Greater Atlanta Christian will also represent Gwinnett County, playing the 5 p.m. game on Sept. 27 against Westminster before the 8 p.m. South-Central showdown.

Friday's games begin at 5 p.m. with Lovejoy facing Morrow, followed at 8 p.m. with Carver vs. LaGrange.

Saturday's schedule opens with an 11 a.m. Creekside vs. Mt. Zion showdown and a 2 p.m. game between Drew and Sandy Creek lead into the GAC game.

Tickets for the event cost $12 purchased at the school and $15 from Ticketmaster or at the gate. Before each game a member of both teams will be honored with a scholar athlete plaque and each game will have an MVP, complete with a trophy.