High School Sports

Gray headlines storied rematch between Mary Persons and Washington County

SANDERSVILLE -- For a pair of programs that have faced off only 16 times, there’s an awful lot of history, tradition and memories when Mary Persons and Washington County play.

The writing of the next chapter awaits, although it will have a ways to go to match the highlight part of the Bulldogs and Golden Hawks’ history, which brings up one word in both Monroe and Washington counties -- trees.

Trees served as vantage points when the teams played 20 years ago in the quarterfinal round of the GHSA Class AAA playoffs at Mary Persons. Both teams were loaded with talent, some bound for major colleges and the NFL.

And trees were literally filled with folks who didn’t want to miss out.

Joel Ingram was a graduate assistant at Jacksonville State and kept hearing stories about Mary Persons and Washington County from his older brother’s roommate, Matt Hollis. Soon enough, Ingram was living it first-hand as a Golden Hawks assistant when the teams met in 2001, his second year with the program.

The Bulldogs and Golden Hawks have met only three times since, but there’s still something extra about the matchup, and that will again be the case when they meet Friday night at the House of Pain.

“I remember when I first came here, it was just such a big week because we knew it was going to be such a tough game,” said Ingram, 72-24-1 in his ninth season as Washington County’s head coach. “It was gonna be such a see-saw, back-and-forth, get-after-you good football game.

“I’m hoping that’s what it’s going to be again.”

There will be a clear postseason feeling when Class AAA’s No. 1 team welcomes Class AAAA’s No. 8 team.

The headliner is Washington County quarterback and safety AJ Gray, who has committed to Georgia Tech. Gray has been an elite performer since his sophomore season, and the Bulldogs get their first look at hime Friday.

Mary Persons head coach Brian Nelson already has seen enough.

“Oh, he’s a great, great football player,” Nelson said. “He can do a lot of things running the ball, throwing the ball, intercepting the ball. He’s everywhere.”

Gray was 7-for-8 for 186 yards and a touchdown passing in playing only a half of last week’s 41-14 win over Thomson, and he also returned an interception 82 yards for a score. He passed for 1,913 yards and 16 touchdowns last year and ran for 1,324 yards and 18 touchdowns to go with 75 tackles and five interceptions.

Mary Persons knows what’s ahead: a power running game that sets up Gray doing damage on the ground and through the air.

“We’ve got to play our reads and contain him,” Mary Persons defensive back Keri Head said. “Most of the time, they run the ball until somebody stops the run. Then they pass it.”

So the Bulldogs will need substantially more discipline than they showed a week ago in their 41-21 win at Jackson, a game in which there were a variety of breakdowns in the secondary.

“We’ve been practicing really hard this week,” Head said. “So hopefully it will be a lot better than the last game.”

The Bulldogs offer a quality running game led by senior Dee High, and quarterback Jake Johnston was solid in his debut on the road against a rival.

And Mary Persons’ defense impresses Ingram.

“They’re very athletic,” he said. “The scheme they run, the 3-5-3, they’ve got athletes all over the field (with) big safeties body-wise, quick/fast linebackers.”

Washington County has won seven straight in the series since a 14-13 loss in the 1993 quarterfinals, the second time that season the teams met as the rivalry legend grew. The Golden Hawks have won 16 of their past 17 home games.

The big-game atmosphere is what both coaches want for teams seemingly bound for the playoffs.

“We want to go out and find games that will show us where we’re at,” Nelson said. “This is one of those games, someone who’s at the level we’re trying to get at. They’ve been deep in the playoffs. Last year, they played for a state championship.”

Said Ingram, “You’ve got third- or fourth-round playoff urgency, because it’s a great team that you know you’re gonna get your (butt) whipped if you go out there and lay an egg.”

Many of this year’s players, Nelson noted, had fathers and uncles and so on play in those mid-1990s games, and now their wait to see what the latest story line is.

“I tell the kids, if you’re a high school football player, these are the kinds of games you want to play in,” Nelson said. “This is why you put in the work.

“It’s the type of game as a high school football player, you should live and breathe to play in.”

Those who played in it two decades ago know all about that.