Ron Gartrell gets a call every fall from his mother, reminding him that the “big game” is just a few days away.
The Stephenson football coach isn’t getting a heads up about his team’s annual showdown against M.L. King. Instead, it’s notice about the Class A showdown between Lincoln County and Washington-Wilkes, where Gartrell went to high school and later served as an assistant coach.
Thirty-four years after he graduated from the rural east Georgia school, Gartrell still checks the newspaper for details of the game every year. The series began in 1970.
“I still get chill bumps when I look in the paper and see that they played,” Gartrell said. “Everybody shuts down everything in both towns when those two teams play. We haven’t been in a rivalry like that here.”
The Stephenson-M.L. King game is a different kind of rivalry, forged because the two teams are in the same region and both have become two of the top teams in Class AAAAA.
“There’s no animosity, but there’s not a bigger game for either school than that game,” Gartrell said. “It has added importance because it usually determines who wins the region.”
The game, which is now the final game of the regular season, has decided the region champion for the past four seasons. M.L. King won it in 2007 and 2010, with Stephenson winning the two years in between.
“The success of the two schools makes it that much more intriguing,” M.L. King coach Mike Carson said. “For that last game to mean so much is critical. The biggest thing is that we’re in the same region and it usually determines the region champion.”
There are other community rivalries in the county that carry weight regardless of records. Lakeside-Tucker, Stephenson-Redan (now on hiatus), Marist-Tucker, Columbia-Cedar Grove and private-school showdown Marist-St. Pius (also on hiatus) are just a few.
“We earmark that game on our schedule,” Columbia coach Mario Allen said of the Cedar Grove contest. “Since I’ve been here that’s been the game we point to. Most of the kids played in the same rec league and in middle school, so that adds to it.”
Tucker coach Franklin Stephens learned from alumni and community members of the importance and history of the Lakeside game before he learned his new players’ names.
The teams have played 44 times since 1966 with Tucker holding a 22-21-1 edge. The Tigers have won 10 straight and have shut out the Vikings five times in that span.
“The community and alumni still get really excited about it, but we have to keep the kids focused on it,” Stephens said. “We try to get the kids to understand that records don’t matter in a game like that. Even though we’ve had the better team lately, [Lakeside] gets really jacked up and they want to beat you.”
Tucker’s game against Marist has created frenzy on both sides in recent years. Tucker leads the series 12-8 and the teams met in the 2008 AAAA state championship game, with the Tigers taking the win.
Stephens, like Gartrell, has experience with rural county rivalries. He was an assistant at AAAAA power Camden County before coming to Tucker. There, he was part of a big rivalry against Class A power Charlton County. As a student, he attended and played football at Burke County in east Georgia, whose big rival was Thomson.
“It’s a different situation up here because these are community rivalries,” Stephens said. “The players and people in the community know each other and see each other all the time. In some of the county rivalries, the only time they see each other is on game night. I think it makes it a more intensive situation this way.”
While Stephens hasn’t seen any evidence of pranking in the series with Lakeside or Marist, Gartrell said he can remember some pranks being pulled by Redan. One year, he said, some Redan supporters painted Stephenson’s practice field blue and silver (the Raiders’ colors). They also painted “words that I can’t say” on the field, according to Gartrell.
“We played them for 10 years straight and it became such a good rivalry because the schools are so close and all the kids knew each other from park ball,” Gartrell said. “That’s why most of the rivalries here are so good, because all the kids and the people in the community know each other.”