There’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned rivalry to kick off a season.
The John Milledge Academy Trojans (0-0) are set to begin 2019 play on their home field Friday night where they will continue their ongoing feud with 1-0 Gatewood. The matchup pits the 2018 GISA Class AAA state runner-up Trojans versus the AA state champion Gators of Eatonton.
The only action JMA head coach J.T. Wall’s team has seen came nearly two weeks ago when the Trojans scrimmaged George Walton Academy. Wall, entering his 10th season as head coach, said his players are ready to line up against some different colored jerseys.
“They’re anxious,” he said. “I think they’re just as tired of hitting each other as we are of seeing them hit each other. They’re ready to play. In a scrimmage, you’re able to work some kinks out and get some hiccups out of the way, but nothing prepares you for Friday night other than Friday night. We feel like we’re at a bit of a disadvantage there, seeing as Gatewood has played a game, but we gotta do what we gotta do. You can drive yourself crazy as a coach trying to prepare your guys for every scenario that can happen, but something’s going to come up that we haven’t covered, which is kind of crazy considering how much stuff we’ve covered. We just hope our guys keep their cool and roll with the punches.”
Gatewood started its 2019 slate with a 34-18 victory earned in the Southeastern Commission of Independent Schools (SECIS) Kickoff Classic against Louisiana school Bowling Green. The game was held Aug. 17 in Montgomery, Ala., and Gator head coach Jeff Ratliff believes it was the first time Gatewood football has played outside Georgia state lines. Before that, Ratliff’s team took on a different Milledgeville school in a preseason scrimmage, defeating GMC Prep 18-6.
The JMA-Gatewood matchup features two of the more successful GISA programs in recent history. As mentioned earlier, both teams made it to their respective classification state championships in 2018, and the two actually met for the AAA title three years ago. The Trojans took both that state championship game and the preceding regular season region championship matchup, winning 17-0 and 17-10, respectively. Gatewood got the last laugh in a battle of unbeatens in 2017 as the Gators won that one 34-17 on JMA’s home field. Overall though, the rivalry has gone overwhelmingly in the Trojans’ favor. They’ve won nine of the last 10 and hold the 34-11-2 advantage in the all-time series according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association (GHSFHA).
Throughout its history the matchup has been played at different points throughout the season, though mostly at the beginning as it is in 2019. Gatewood deftly operates a triple-option offense unlike anything Wall’s team will see through the remainder of the upcoming campaign. The JMA head coach didn’t mince words when asked if he prefers seeing the sparingly used system at the start of the year when his team has more time to prefer for it.
“We don’t like seeing it period because you’ve got to be so disciplined to play it,” Wall said. “That’s why it gives a lot of people problems. Your guys have to be disciplined and sound in their lanes and responsibilities. Coach Ratliff does a good job of changing up ways to block it and giving you different looks to make you think it’s the normal I-formation, which it isn’t. It’s a great chess match because every year when we counter with something they do something to counter the counter. It’s fun and that’s why we do it.”
Coaches can scheme all they want, but it’s up to the players on the field to decide ballgames. Both teams feature some very good student-athletes who have helped propel their programs to the status they hold today. The Trojans return All-State running back Amaad Foston who was the only sophomore to earn All-State honors in AAA a year ago. He was used sparingly in his team’s lone preseason scrimmage, but looked to be ready 100 percent ready for the regular season. The Gators’ triple-option attack runs through junior Luke Haley who, like Foston, was named All-State as a sophomore at the AA level. All he did last year was rush for nearly 350 yards in Gatewood’s state championship win over Terrell. His absence played a role in last season’s meeting against JMA where the Trojans took a lopsided 45-7 decision as he left around halftime with an injury.
“Our kids came out and played hard,” Wall said of last season’s meeting in Eatonton. “We were able to cause some turnovers, which helped us a lot. The option is very easy to stop when the team running it doesn’t have the football, and it’s very hard to defend when they do have the football. They had some injuries in that game that played a part in it just like we did two years ago. That’s part of the game, so you’ve just got to roll with it.”
Friday’s winner will either start or continue its season without a loss while the loser will need to bounce back. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at John Milledge.