VALDOSTA -- Tonight's Valdosta-Tift County game has more than its share of subplots.
The region opener. A clash of two top 10 teams. The rematch of last season's rout. The former quarterback facing his old team. Tift County trying to win consecutive games over Valdosta for the first time since 1949-50, and only the third time ever. And the 78th meeting of two of South Georgia's oldest rivals.
Tift, ranked No. 7 in Class AAAAA, comes to Cleveland Field tonight for an 8 p.m. game with No. 9 Valdosta.
Most importantly, it is the Region 1-AAAAA opener for both teams. The region games are the ones that decide who goes to the playoffs and who doesn't. In maybe the toughest region in the state, where four of the six teams were ranked a week ago, every region game will go a long way toward deciding playoff seedings.
"The next five games are all big, because they decide whether or not you make the playoffs," Valdosta head coach Rick Darlington said. "All the region games will be hard, starting with this one.
"Tift County's got a good team. I think they're averaging 32 points a game, and their defense has given up (27 points) all year. They've got so many weapons."
The history of Valdosta and Tift goes back all the way to 1914, when Valdosta defeated Tifton High 38-0. In their 76 previous meetings, Valdosta has won 63, Tift has won 12 and two games have ended in ties.
But it's the most recent meeting of these two teams, 12 months ago in Tifton, that both sides remember real well. On a day when Tift could seemingly do nothing wrong and Valdosta could do nothing right, Tift came away with a 34-2 victory, its most lopsided win over VHS since 1915 (33-0).
Ironically, Tift would not win another game, while Valdosta would rally with five straight wins before losing in the state quarterfinals. The 34-2 game was clearly the high point of Tift's season, and the low point of Valdosta's.
This week, Valdosta has talked little about last year's game, but they haven't needed to. None of the Wildcats who were there have forgotten it. That game has fueled Valdosta's fire this week.
Also helping fuel that fire have been the signs hanging up all over Tifton hyping the game as "No Mercy, Part 2," in reference to last year's game. The Wildcats know about the sign -- a Wildcat fan brought one to Darlington on Tuesday.
This game will also feature former Valdosta quarterback Scott Shuman against his old team. Shuman was the Wildcats' back-up the last two seasons, but transferred to Tift this season so he would have a chance to start. At Valdosta, he would have still been behind sophomore Michael Turner (and possibly another 10th grader, Alfrie Johnson) on the depth chart. This season, Shuman is 37-for-77 passing for 524 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. Having coached Shuman for two years, Darlington knows what he can expect from the senior.
When Darlington was hired as Valdosta's 13th football coach in February 2003, one of the men he beat out for the job was new Tift coach Jay Walls. Walls, then the coach at Live Oak (Fla.) Suwannee, was one of about 20 coaches interviewed for the Valdosta job. Walls was hired by Tift in January. Walls will be returning to the site of his college days. Walls was a defensive lineman for Valdosta State from 1983-85.
Walls' new defensive coordinator, Ben Simmons, will be reunited with the man he coached under, and later succeeded, at Raines High in Jacksonville. Welton Coffey, who coached Raines to the 1997 4A state championship, is Valdosta's secondary coach.
Also reuniting will be cousins Steve Dawson of Valdosta and Israel Troupe of Tift, who also could be the two best receivers in the region. Both are playmakers who are threats when they get the ball in their hands, whether it's catching passes, running the ball, or returning kicks.
Tift County will be another undefeated team Valdosta has had to face. The Wildcats have also played currently-undefeated teams Camden County, Thomas County Central and Madison County, and Ware County was undefeated until Valdosta beat them.
Walls is definitely impressed with Valdosta.
Valdosta's main strength is "outstanding team speed. They have speed on defense, offense and their kicking teams," Walls told The Tifton Gazette. "No. 1 (Demetrius James) is an outstanding running back. He has good vision and he runs hard and fast. No. 10 (Dawson) is their big play man. When they need a big play on offense or on a kick return, they look for him.
"(At quarterback,) No. 2 (Johnson) and No. 16 (Turner) both have speed and can throw. They do a good job of executing their offense."
"They are much better than their record. They are 3-2, but we think of them as a 5-0 team," Walls added.
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