The Valdosta Daily Times
Last year, Taz Dixon was scheming against the Lowndes Vikings as a member of the Valdosta coaching staff. Quarterback Alex Stephenson was backing up Shelby Wilkes and supporting his team as they upset the favored Vikings.
This year, Dixon and Stephenson are trying to help the Vikings beat their crosstown rival Wildcats in Friday’s annual Winnersville Classic at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.
Dixon and Stephenson are the select few that will have the opportunity to coach and play in the Winnersville Classic as members of both teams.
“It is kind of a weird scenario,” Dixon said. “With football being so big in the community, for a coach to go from one school to another, I did what I had to do.”
Added Stephenson: “I’m sure it will be a little different, but I am ready to go.”
Stephenson joined the Vikings football team after transferring from Valdosta to Lowndes following the completion of the 2011 football season. His first practice with the team was during the spring and he has worked his way into the Vikings’ starting quarterback role, although he splits time with junior Seth Carlo.
“This is where I want to be,” said Stephenson, who has completed 15 of 26 passes for 191 yards with two touchdowns this season. “These are my teammates and I love all the people I've met here. This is where I want to play football.
“I enjoyed my time (at Valdosta), but I am really glad to be here (at Lowndes). I am a Viking and I love it.”
Dixon made the switch to Lowndes because of family reasons. Dixon’s wife is a teacher within the Lowndes County School System and his son is a freshman at Lowndes High School. The switch just seemed to make sense.
“It worked out where I could come over,” Dixon said. “Family first.”
Although Dixon and Stephenson now sport the Vikings’ maroon and silver, both were wearing the black and yellow of Valdosta last year and both were part of one of the greatest finishes in Winnersville Classic history.
The Wildcats scored 14-unanswered points in the final 48 seconds to shock the Vikings 21-17 at Martin Stadium, ending a 7-year losing streak to their crosstown rival.
“It was crazy,” Stephenson said. “Everything happened kind of fast and it was a lot of chaos on that sideline. Everyone was going everywhere...I can imagine there was a lot of hurt and pain on the Lowndes side.”
Dixon called the finish to last year’s Winnersville Classic one of the greatest games he has ever been a part of and said “it was an exciting night for the Valdosta Wildcats.”
“It was nothing short of amazing,” Dixon said. “I have never been a part of something like that, as a player or a coach. Those five or six plays that finalized that game are kind of indescribable.”
While both Stephenson’s and Dixon’s moves from Valdosta to Lowndes have been widely discussed this week, Stephenson’s transfer has been widely publicized and was even the topic at this year’s South Georgia Media Day in Valdosta.
During the Vikings’ portion of media day, assistant coach Hiram Johnson thanked Valdosta head coach Rance Gillespie for Stephenson’s transfer. Gillespie responded with some fighting words of his own, saying “You’d think, Coach, you have a thousand more students than we do, that you wouldn’t have to come to Valdosta to find your quarterback.”
Late last week, Stephenson said he hadn't received any calls or text messages from his former Wildcat teammates, but he “can imagine” he would receive some this week. He also said he had “no plans of responding” to the text messages and social media chatter from Valdosta players and fans.
Wednesday night, Stephenson was the topic of many tweets sent out by Valdosta players.
Instead, Stephenson said he just wants to focus on Friday night and his return to Bazemore-Hyder Stadium and his hopes of helping the Vikings win the annual rivalry game.
“It is going to be a fight,” Stephenson said. “They are a good team and we are a good team. They better be ready to go.”
With the addition of Dixon to the Lowndes coaching staff, the Vikings’ defense has performed at an extremely high level this season, posting three shutouts this regular season. Dixon said his presence on the Wildcat coaching staff the last two years won’t make a difference this season because of Valdosta’s head coach.
“Knowing what kind of coach Gillespie is, offensively, and knowing how great of a staff they have, period, I am sure there will be some things that they will do differently. I don’t think they will completely change what they do because of that — I wouldn’t. But, I’m sure there will be some new wrinkles here and there to throw you off the path.”
When asked whether he will give Stephenson advice on how to handle the added pressure of Friday’s game, Lowndes head coach Randy McPherson said “there shouldn’t be any pressure in a football game. That is why they call it a game.”
Regardless, there will surely be pressure the 17-year-old Stephenson Friday night.
The Valdosta Daily Times will provide play-by-play updates throughout Friday’s game on Twitter at @Ed_Hooper. The score will also be updated online at www.valdostadailytimes.com.