In the pros, it’s city against city. In college, it’s state against state. But Saturday, it’s county against county, as four teams from Cobb will face four squads from Gwinnett in this year’s Corky Kell Classic.
TWO GIANTS COLLIDE …
Cobb and Gwinnett each boast some of the best high school football in the state. Although all eight squads in this year’s Classic are from Class 5A, programs from each county also compete in the other classifications as well, making the two counties quite possibly the two pigskin powers of Georgia, all things considered.
Cobb has always fielded competitive football teams but has only one GHSA state title to its credit, which came in 1967 when the Marietta Blue Devils won the Class AAA championship. However, in recent years, all four Cobb programs in the event today have made tremendous strides in getting to the next level.
Meanwhile, Gwinnett has had no such issues in returning to state championship glory. The painted sign on the water tower off I-85 says it best: “Success lives here.” That slogan rings especially true in high school football as Gwinnett teams have combined to win 13 GHSA state titles.
Among programs in today’s event, Brookwood and Peachtree Ridge have each won one while Grayson and North Gwinnett have come agonizingly close in the state finals.
But what does it mean for the two counties to be placed in a “Cobb-Gwinnett Challenge” of sorts - similar to the college basketball challenges between conferences – to determine which county has the better brand of football?
“There is a fraternity of coaches and within that fraternity there are pods,” explained North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire. “We respect each other and support each other when we play outside the county.”
MORE THAN JUST A GAME …
However, the Classic is not just about the great matchups on the field, it is also about high school kids getting the chance to play in a top-flight facility in front of crowds several times larger than what they see on an average Friday night.
“It’s a great experience for our kids to play in a big-time environment in front of 20,000 people,” said Walton head coach Rocky Hidalgo during a recent interview with Score Atlanta.
Peachtree Ridge head coach Bill Ballard agreed.
“The Corky Kell Classic is a real neat thing for high school athletics,” gushed Ballard. “Our kids are really excited about getting to play where the Falcons play and the SEC Championship game is held.”
In addition to playing against top competition in a top-flight facility, the programs each benefit from playing in an elite event that takes only the top programs in the state. The coaches and supporters of programs from throughout the metro area go out of their way to try to get an invite from the Kell Classic.
“It adds prestige to the program,” explained Hidalgo. “We actively pursue trying to be a part of the event. We really beat down the door trying to get in.”
For Lassiter head coach Jep Irwin, the Trojans’ game against North Gwinnett will be his first as head coach of Lassiter.
“It’s just tremendous,” said Irwin, who coached Alabama’s Pelham High School last year. “I’ve been looking forward to it since I first got the job. The event means a whole lot to our players, coaches and the community.”
An invitation to the Classic is considered a compliment to the individual programs.
“It’s a great honor to be asked by Dave Hunter and the Kell family to be a part of the classic,” said Bill Ballard, head coach of Peachtree Ridge. “It is a big deal.”
It is also a chance to for teams to show what they are all about on what might just be the biggest stage in Georgia high school athletics. The thought of playing in the Dome against a quality opponent is a great motivator to the players and also brings a lot of excitement to the fans.
“Hopefully, we’ll have a lot of support and show what type of a program we are,” said Ballard. “We’ve been thinking about (the game against McEachern) all summer. We talked about it while we were working out.”
While some teams will look at this event as an honor and privilege, others also see it as an opportunity to measure themselves with the best. Kell has made it to the playoffs in recent years, but will use their game against Grayson as a chance to see how far they’ve come.
“Gwinnett teams have been powers in the state the last several years,” said Kell head coach Derek Cook. “We’re trying to climb that ladder.”
The Classic has kicked off high school football in Georgia since 1992 and this year’s edition appears to be one of the most intriguing and competitive yet. The only question is: who’s the top dog this year? Cobb or Gwinnett?