TIFTON — Ah, high school football season.
Crisp air, bright stadium lights, popcorn and hotdogs — all are part of the fan experience.
But the best part of watching high school football is the big game against your rival.
Win or lose, these games are marked by heightened anticipation and high energy. The energy is high, the face paint is on.
Let’s play some ball!
Blue Devils vs. Packers
When the Tift County Blue Devils win a game, they’re happy. When they win a game against Colquitt County, they’re ecstatic.
The Blue Devils and the Packers have been playing each other since 1914, according to records from the Georgia High School Football Historians Association.
In the 90 games the two teams have played since 1914, the Packers have won 53 to the Blue Devils’ 37. Two games were ties.
Former Tift County football player Jack Stone, who played in the 1940s, said the rivalry is geographic. Tift County and Colquitt County are contiguous counties, and there are a lot of similarities between Tifton and Moultrie, he said.
The original big rival was Fitzgerald, Stone said, but when high school football teams were divided into classifications, the teams stopped playing each other as often and the Blue Devils took on the Packers as their main rivals.
The Colquitt County team has historically been a hard team to beat for Tift County. Wins were pretty evenly split until the 1960s, when Colquitt began dominating. From 1962-77, Colquitt beat Tift 11 times. Tift won only three games. From 1978 until 2019, the Packers beat the Blue Devils 27 times, while the Devils claimed 17 games within that time frame.
Tift County plays Colquitt County Oct. 25.
Packers vs. Wildcats, Vikings
But many longtime Moultrie football fans look forward to getting the new season schedule to circle the date the Packers play Valdosta, the team’s longtime rival.
The series between the two schools dates back to 1913, and although for many years it was one-sided in favor of the Wildcats, it remained the Moultrie community’s football focus.
In the last decade, loyal Packers fans have become equally curious about when and where the Colquitt County-Lowndes game will be played as the programs became two of the best in Georgia’s highest classification.
Packers-Wildcats and Packers-Vikings.
Two of the strongest rivalries in Georgia.
The games have drawn large and raucous crowds in both Colquitt and Lowndes counties and the outcomes often have been consequential in the teams’ successes.
The games between Colquitt County and Valdosta have become a bit less significant during the last three seasons since the schools are no longer in the same region. The Wildcats dropped down one classification following the 2015 season, and although the two schools have still met each year, the games have no playoff implications.
But for many years, that was not the case.
The Packers represented Moultrie High from 1913-77 and, like most football teams in the state, had troubles with Valdosta, which for a long time was the most successful program in Georgia.
According to the Georgia High School Football Association website, Valdosta posted a 42-11-4 record against the Packers in the Moultrie High School years.
The Packers have closed the gap since 1978 when three schools consolidated to form Colquitt County High, but the Wildcats still own a 70-30-4 record against the Packers.
The schools met for the first time in 1913, with the two squads battling to a 7-7 tie. Dot Scarboro scored Moultrie’s first touchdown against Valdosta on a 90-yard run.
The two schools met later that same season, with Valdosta taking a 20-14 victory.
Moultrie got its first win over Valdosta Nov. 14, 1914. It was a 51-7 victory.
The Packers won in 1921 and 1922, but it was the first of just two times that Moultrie High was able to beat the Wildcats two years in a row. The next back-to-back wins over the Wildcats didn’t come until 1974 and 1975.
There were some memorable Moultrie wins through the years, including an 18-0 shutout in an undefeated 1928 season.
The 1963 Packers reached the state championship game and their season included a 32-0 shutout of the Wildcats.
In 1972, Moultrie defeated the Wildcats 42-14 at Mack Tharpe Stadium as the Packers rolled on to the South Georgia championship game before their 11-1 season ended.
Twice, the Wildcats delivered the Packers’ only defeat.
In the 1965 game, the only loss in an 8-1-1 season came by a 21-19 score.
Five years later, the Packers went 9-1. Valdosta spoiled what would have been a perfect regular season with a 19-12 win in Moultrie.
The Packers 28-20 win over Valdosta in 1975 was particularly bittersweet.
Moultrie lost to Thomasville that year and the Packers, Valdosta and Thomasville each finished the season with one region loss. The region principals voted the Packers out and Thomasville and Valdosta were selected to settle the tie and determine which team advanced to the playoffs.
That 1975 win was the last for the Packers over Valdosta until 1985.
Jim Hughes — who was the Thomasville head coach when the Bulldogs delivered the Packers’ only loss in 1975 — moved up Highway 319 to take over the Colquitt County program in 1983.
Before he led his first Packers team against Valdosta, he was asked about the rivalry between the Packers and Wildcats. He answered with surprising candor.
“For it to be a rivalry, the other team has to win at least once in a while,” Hughes answered, surely raising the hackles of a number of Packer loyalists.
But Hughes was able to put a different spin on the series during his 17-year stay on the Packers sidelines.
Two years after he took over the program, the Packers ended the 10-year losing streak against the Wildcats by taking a 21-14 regular-season win in Valdosta. The Wildcats evened that score with a 14-13 win in the region playoffs.
The Packers’ next win in the series was among the most memorable for Packer fans.
When Colquitt County went to Cleveland Field Oct. 20, 1989, it was homecoming for the Wildcats, who were ranked No. 2 in the state. The stands were full and on hand were crews from ABC-TV’s 20/20 news magazine, filming a feature on the Valdosta football program and its history of success.
But the Packers spoiled the evening for the home fans with two goal line stands and a 26-yard touchdown run by Spindola Merritt for a 7-0 victory.
“We occasionally had some good moments in the ‘80s,” Hughes said.
But the 1990s were something else.
Colquitt started one of the most remarkable runs in the series in 1993 with a 10-7 victory in Valdosta.
Tony DeRosso scored all of the Packers points on a 19-yard touchdown pass reception from quarterback Clif Henry, an extra point and a 38-yard field goal.
Colquitt blanked Valdosta until the final minute in a game that started a seven-year stretch in which the Packers won nine of 10 meetings against the Wildcats.
Two of the most significant of those victories came the next season when the Packers won their first state championship.
While going 15-0, Colquitt defeated the Wildcats 10-7 in the regular season and 23-10 in the state championship game. Both victories came in front of the home fans at Mack Tharpe Stadium.
In the first victory, the Packers got a two-yard touchdown run by Lavasky King and a 38-yard field goal by Neal Clements in the second quarter breaking a 7-7 tie.
The Packers held Valdosta scoreless after Johnny Jones returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown on the fourth play of the game.
When the two teams met in the championship game, the Packers made it clear the earlier victory was no fluke.
Chris Davis had three interceptions and recovered a fumble and the Packers shut down the Wildcats until the game had been decided.
Clements had a 38-yard field goal, his 12th of the season, and Henry scored on a one-yard run. Henry also connected with Carlos Johnson on a 39-yard scoring pass and Tim Sanders scored on a 34-yard run to put the Packers up 23-3.
Colquitt beat the Wildcats again the next season and took the regular-season matchup in 1996 before falling to their region foe 16-7 in the state quarterfinals.
The Packers knocked off the Wildcats each of the next three years, including winning twice in 1997.
“That was an excellent run for us,” said Hughes, who is still the Packers all-time winningest coach, posting a 140-68-2 record. “We got to the point where we had a couple of classes that had never lost to Valdosta. We expected to play well against them.”
In 14 of the 17 seasons he coached Colquitt County, he squared off against Valdosta’s Nick Hyder, who was 249-36-2 and won seven state championships as the Wildcats head coach.
Hughes counted Hyder among his closest friends in the coaching fraternity and calls him “a class act.”
“With Valdosta, there was a mutual respect,” Hughes said. “It was the way I thought a rivalry ought to be.
“You give everything you have on the field and then you walk away from it with class.”
He remembers attending Valdosta state playoff games after the Packers had been eliminated and said Hyder returned the favor.
“In 1991, when we were getting ready to play LaGrange (in the state championship game), we communicated and he was still rooting for us,” Hughes said.
And when the Packers defeated his Wildcats in the 1994 state championship game, Hyder remained on the field long after the final horn, talking to Packer fans, many of whom he had come to know through the years.
After Hughes retired following the 1999 season, Valdosta wrestled back its domination in the series, winning 11 of the next 13 matchups.
But two years after a 38-36 loss to the Wildcats on the final game of the 2011 regular season cost the Packers a region championship, Colquitt went on its current six-game winning streak over the Wildcats.
None of the six has been particularly close, starting with a 17-0 win in 2013, the first of two Packer shutouts among the six wins.
Colquitt’s 2016 victory was the only loss that Valdosta suffered as it went on to win the most recent of its 24 state championships.
The Packers won seven of the 11 games over the Wildcats after Rush Propst took over the program in 2008.
The Packers’ long-running series with Lowndes began in 1968 and has taken on more importance in recent years. Most of the games were especially hard-fought and many had playoff implications.
Much like the Packers’ series with Valdosta, the one with Lowndes has been highlighted by streaks.
The Packers won the first eight meetings; Lowndes won the next eight. Beginning in 1987, Colquitt won nine in a row.
Then, from 1996-2012, Lowndes won 15 of 17. The Vikings won eight region championships in that span and state championships in 2004, 2005 and 2007.
But beginning in 2013, the Packers have won five of the last six, starting with a 37-7 win in 2013.
Colquitt has scored 40 or more points in each of the last five, including in a 51-45 double-overtime loss to the Vikings in 2017.
Also since 2013, as the Packers narrowed its deficit in the all-time series against Lowndes to 26-27, Colquitt County has won state championships in 2014 and 2015 and played for the title in 2017 and 2018.
The Packers will try to extend their winning streak against Valdosta Sept. 13 when they travel to Bazemore-Hyder Stadium at Cleveland Field and also will have to go on the road to face Lowndes in the regular-season finale Nov. 1.
Vikings vs. Wildcats
Named the Winnersville Classic in 1981 by Johnny B. Lastinger and the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce, the series pitting the Valdosta High School Wildcats and Lowndes High School Vikings began in 1968 and has been played every season since.
Valdosta won the first ever meeting 48-6.
“I don’t care what kind of season you’ve had, if you lost the Winnersville game, it doesn’t feel near as good. I think everybody in the town can tell you who won last year,” Valdosta High School Head Coach Alan Rodemaker said. “And everybody can tell you who won the year before. And who won the year before.”
Rodemaker has a 1-2 record as head coach in the series.
“If we lose you won’t see me on Saturday. If we win (Winnersville), you’ll see me everywhere for the next week. I’ll be out in public and you’ll see our other coaches. If we lose, it stays with you.
“You’re either one or the other. If you go to a Christmas party or you go to the beach in the summer and somebody is from Valdosta, you’re either a Viking or a Wildcat that’s it. You can’t be a little of both.”
Of the 57 meetings, Valdosta has won 37 games to Lowndes’ 20.
Lowndes won its first Winnersville in 1977 with a 7-2 victory.
The longest streaks in the series are 13 straight victories for Valdosta from 1985-96. Lowndes won seven in a row from 2004-10. The last two years have been particularly cruel for the Wildcats, however.
When the Vikings beat them 45-0 in 2017, it was the largest loss in school history. Last year, the ‘Cats surrendered 71 points to their rivals in a game that ended Lowndes, 71, Valdosta, 35. That, too, is a school record.
For its part, Valdosta has dealt Lowndes historic losses. A 52-12 drubbing in 1994 was then the most points allowed in school history. The first game in series history also left quite an impression: Valdosta won 48-6. Only one other school has had a larger margin of victory against them.
“Every one of the wins against Valdosta is special for our whole community, team, coaches — everything,” Lowndes High School Head Coach Randy McPherson said. “It doesn’t matter, either team can win this game any year. Doesn’t matter how many in a row you’ve got or whatever. As long as this game is played, Valdosta could win or Lowndes could win.
“The first thing that I realized my first Winnersville game was the sheer noise of the game. Everybody is screaming. Doesn’t matter if it’s a three-yard gain or a 90-yard touchdown run. A whole night long where it’s just loud. Can’t talk on the sidelines and you certainly can’t say anything to the players on the field.
“If I could find a way to get my guys to play as hard every night as they do against Valdosta and put it in a bottle, I’d be a millionaire. It’s just something about that game where they play hard.”
Bulldogs vs. Yellow Jackets
The gridiron rivalry between Thomas County Central and Thomasville high schools is good for the community, according to Randy Young and Darrell Allen.
The two do simultaneous play-by-play commentary on sister Thomasville radio stations WTUF and WPAX, respectively.
Never was the rivalry hotter than December 1993, when the Central Yellow Jackets and Thomasville Bulldogs, both then in Region 1-AAA, played for the state championship. Central won 14-12 in a cliffhanger.
Young said the celebration after the game was not about Central’s victory.
“It was that the game was over,” he said.
The game polarized the community, the commentators agreed.
Allen and Young have done game commentary on the teams for several decades.
“I was a fan before I was a broadcaster,” Allen said, adding the rivalry is not as intense since the two schools are now in different regions.
Even though the two teams are not in the same region, the annual Central/Thomasville game, which is usually the first or second game of the season, is standing-room-only. Bleachers are erected in odd places, and people stand five-deep to watch the contests.
Young and Allen said if the game is not played for weather-related reasons, the following school year seems unsettled.
“An important point about the rivalry is how it pushes two schools to better themselves,” Young said. “It’s always been a push-pull involved that is healthy for the schools.”
“The Thomas County versus Thomasville High football game is a great family event for our community,” Frank Delaney said.
He was assistant principal for 21 years and principal for 15 years. For the last eight years, he has been dean of students.
“Those years that we didn’t play just left a hole in the season,” he said. “A few years ago, we couldn’t play on Friday or Saturday because of lightning. As an administrator, a good football season gives our students a great sense of pride. If we are able to be the winner, then our community has the bragging rights for the year.”
The game is a must for the financial support it provides both schools’ programs, he said.
“The cost for high school sports is going up every year, and good gate receipts are a must,” Delaney said.
However, he added, results of the rival game “do not keep us from worshipping with one another on Sunday morning.”
Andy Jones was head coach and athletic director at Douglass Middle School and assistant principal and assistant football coach at Thomasville High. He retired in 1992, and served 13 years on the Thomasville City school board.
“Rivalries can be good. It stimulates excitement in the community,” Jones said.
Some people go the “love/hate route,” but it’s only a game, he added.
Without the rivalry, the two schools would not have an opportunity to display their athletic prowess to each other, Jones said.
“The community has been rewarded because of the rivalry,” he said.
When the whistle blows at the rival game, it is over until next year, Jones said.
“It made for good, clean fun. The rivalry is good, and it has been for years,” he said.
The won-loss record for the Thomasville vs. Thomas County Central games are 26 wins for Thomasville to 25 wins for Thomas County Central.
The Bulldogs face off against the Yellow Jackets on Aug. 30.
SunLight Project reporters Eve Copeland-Brechbiel, Juston Lewis, Patti Dozier, Wayne Grandy and Becky Taylor contributed to this report.