FORSYTH -- There are certain programs in the state that bring a tone of reverence to the conversation of high school football.
And there are stadiums that serve as poster children for high school football in a Southern state.
Mary Persons is one of those teams, and Dan Pitts Stadium is one of those high school football Friday night shrines, especially when the Bulldogs are hot.
The undefeated Bulldogs are hot.
And Veterans is up next.
The Warhawks take their four-year-old program into the home of the sixth-ranked Bulldogs on Friday night in the de facto GHSA Region 2-AAAA championship.
How big is this one? Veterans (5-3, 5-0 Region 2-AAA) is having a ticket pre-sale, something probably not expected at this point.
The kids are excited about it; theyre talking about it, Veterans head coach David Bruce said of the student body. Im hoping ... well have a nice big crowd up there.
This might not carry the same cache as the legendary Mary Persons-Washington County playoff showdowns in the 1990s, but its one of the biggest regular-season games in a decade or so for the Bulldogs, who have their sights set on playing two more games than a year ago when they lost in the quarterfinals to Ridgeland while also focusing on winning their first region title since 1997.
Thats what we talk to our kids about, said Mary Persons head coach Brian Nelson, who was a 23-year-old quarterbacks coach at Division III Wisconsin-Eau Claire when the Bulldogs last hoisted a region trophy. We start a defensive end (Malik Herring) that wasnt even born the last time they won one.
Basically, theyve gone (almost) their entire lifetime without Mary Persons winning a region championship, so its important to these kids, and its important to our community and our town and our history.
Bruce is more than a little excited about the implications and location of the game.
Im as excited as Ive been in seven or eight years, said Bruce, in his fourth season as Veterans only head coach. I tell you what, I love that stadium. Its fun being there.
The historical spectrum with the programs is vast.
Veterans has played only 13 teams in its history. Mary Persons had 13 opponents last season.
Mary Persons is trying to go undefeated in the regular season for the first time since 1994, when it lost 30-14 to Washington County in the Class AA quarterfinals. In the 12 wins that season, the Bulldogs had only one decided by less than three touchdowns, 21-7 over Houston County.
This meeting, of course, is about the present and a region championship for the winner.
It is, of course, the biggest game in Veterans history. The Warhawks opened the season hoping to make the playoffs.
As the things progressed, we kind of adjusted our goals. We want to be able to have a say-so in what seed we are; were not going to just be happy to be a four-seed, Bruce said. Then as things progressed the past few weeks, we said, Shoot, we want the region championship.
Mary Persons has won six games by 15 points or more and survived a trip down the interstate to nip Westside 16-13. Beating Westside two weeks before the Seminoles lost to Mary Persons was a program-building win for Veterans, which is on a five-game winning streak.
Veterans will take its crack at keeping do-everything Akebren Ralls from, well, doing everything. Bruce likened him to one of Middle Georgias top players of the past few decades.
He may be the best return man Ive seen since Willie Reid, said Bruce, who went against the Warner Robins and Florida State standout while an assistant at Westside a little more than a decade ago. Hes incredible.
The Bulldogs put pressure on defenses regardless of where Ralls lines up.
They do a lot, Bruce said. I counted 48 different formations. Thats incredible. We have to make sure that were lined up correctly. You line up wrong, they get a man advantage in the blocking scheme, and theyre off to the races.
Bruce and Nelson are trying to temper emotions inside the teams and hype from the outside, which will be hard to do come Friday night with an expected overflow crowd hoping for dry weather.
Both teams have earned and deserved to be in this (situation), Nelson said. Both us and Veterans have earned the right to play in this game. To me, a game like (Friday) night is what makes sports, makes athletics so fun and so exciting.