Proximity, talent and tradition are the key components of a healthy rivalry, and for that reason Valdosta vs. Lowndes is consistently pinned as the states biggest and best. Valdosta State University and about five miles is all that separates these two dynamos. Valdosta has claimed 23 state titles, and is well known as the winningnest high school program in the country. Lowndes has more recently started to match that success and has won five state titles, four since 1999. These two teams have been battling it out since 1968.
In 2012, it looked like once again these two programs would make playoff runs, but that ended when they received first-round exits. Lowndes was 9-1 heading into postseason play and fell at home to quarterback Anthony Jennings and the Marietta Blue Devils 30-27. Valdosta matched up with a hot North Cobb team that ran off with a 42-14 victory, sparking its semifinals run.
Region 1-AAAAAA is often considered the toughest region in the state, and last season it sent Camden County, Colquitt County, Lowndes and Valdosta into the playoffs. From top to bottom of the region, each game feels like a must win and holds significance. The excitement around this rivalry grows with the difficulties each team faces on a weekly basis.
"As far as it being more important than any other game on the schedule it's not," said Valdosta head coach Rance Gillespie. "And we certainly talk about that, but as far as it being different from any game on the schedule it is, and you would have to be lying not to recognize that. It is a big, big football game."
As a head coach the approach to each week is a routine. But for the community and players that are a part of this game, the Winnersville Classic means a lot more.
"It's always a good football game in a football hungry community in a football hungry town," said Gillespie. "It's going to sell out and we are going to play in front of 15,000 people every year, and so far the ones that I have been in have been three very good football games."
Gillespie enters his fourth season as the Wildcats head coach and has a 1-2 record in this matchup. In 2010, Lowndes won 24-17, but the following year Valdosta got a hold of the series with a 21-17 victory. The Vikings, however, in another one possession game, prevailed 17-14 last season.
"If it's not the biggest rivalry in the state, it is one of the biggest," said Gillespie. "It's two very quality football programs that have had a lot of success, and both have a lot of tradition."
There is a lot of pride in south Georgia and for good reason. Gridiron success is a way of life, and no part of the country has seen winning like the Valdosta area. When asked if this rivalry symbolized the brand of football in the south, Gillespie was quick to point out that this is just one of many great rivalries this region of football has to offer.
"I don't know if representing a group we feel anything in that matter. Certainly we feel a sense of tradition and responsibility for upholding that tradition at Valdosta High School, but as far as reaching any further than that I am sure there are schools across the south that feel that their rivalry is just as big and certainly more important to them than ours is."
When teams see Valdosta on the schedule, it is a big game. The Wildcats will have five hungry opponents to face before they visit Lowndes, including Class AA Brooks County. Brooks County upset Valdosta 28-24 at home in 2012, and will be one of the biggest early tests for the Wildcats. Valdosta is without five starters from last year's offensive line and will also replace quarterback Shelby Wilkes. The defense returns the majority of the starters and will have to lead the unit early.
Lowndes head coach Randy McPherson has a lot more experience returning, and is ranked preseason No. 5 in Class AAAAAA heading into the 2013 season. All four linebackers return for the Vikings, and will lead a defense that allowed just 13.0 points per game last year.