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Game of the week: West Hall travels to Johnson for Battle of Oakwood
Johnson Knights Caleb Herrin, left, and Cedric Harris run through a drill during practice for the season opening game tonight against West Hall. - photo by Tom Reed

High school football previews: Week 1

West Hall at Johnson

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium, Oakwood

Radio: 1330-AM, 102.9-FM

Coaches: West Hall, Tony Lotti; Johnson, Jason Roquemore

Key players: West Hall, OL Blake Manning (6-6, 300 Sr.); QB Zach English (5-11, 175 Jr.); TE/DE Hunter Atkinson (6-6, 235 Jr.). Johnson, RB/LB Cedric Harris (6-1, 200 Sr.); RB/LB A.J. Millwood (5-9, 185 Sr.); TE/LB Jose Martinez (6-1, 210 Sr.).

Prediction: WEST HALL. The Spartans showed in their scrimmage an ability to move the ball well. The title of Kings of Oakwood stays with the school west of Interstate 985.

Battle of Oakwood

Series history

West Hall leads all-time series, 11-6-1

Last 10 meetings

2011: West Hall 35, Johnson 21

2010: Johnson 33, West Hall 31

2009: Johnson 49, West Hall 45

2008: West Hall 56, Johnson 55

2007: Johnson 34, West Hall 18

2006: West Hall 13, Johnson 6

2005: West Hall 17, Johnson 7

2004: Johnson 24, West Hall 7

2003: Johnson 7, West Hall 6

2002: West Hall 24, Johnson 0

Johnson senior running back Cedric Harris isn’t giving away a closely guarded secret when he says Friday’s game against West Hall will be the Knights’ biggest game for 2012. It’s always a big deal when the two high schools in Oakwood play. It even has its own title: The Battle of Oakwood.

Add to that the fact that the Knights (0-10 in 2011) are playing a nonregion schedule for the next two seasons, and Harris knows that pulling out a victory in his last shot at West Hall will be just about as sweet as it gets.

“We’re all jacked up and ready to go,” said Harris, a Times Elite 11 pick. “To my school, this game is all about pride.

“We hope that it will be packed out in the stands for the game here (tonight).”

A full house is a pretty safe bet for this game, after which the winner is awarded a piece of oak in a ceremony. And even more fans than usual are expected for this year’s matchup at Billy Ellis Memorial, given that it’s one of only two regular season games involving Hall County teams tonight.

West Hall senior lineman Blake Manning would love nothing more than to bring Spartans first-year coach Tony Lotti his first career win as a head coach, and keep the piece of oak in their school for another season. The Spartans won last season, 35-21.

“Johnson is our archrival and there’s a lot of hype that comes with the game,” Manning said.

The Knights are also ushering in a first-year coach, Jason Roquemore. His emphasis for this game is to give the fans and players something to be excited about, rather than focusing on the nonregion schedule that was decided on before he took over the job.

Johnson’s new coach said he already understands the dynamic that started the rivalry. West Hall opened its doors in 1988, splitting off from Johnson and pulling students from that school district. The game has been held annually since 1994.

“To both schools, it’s a big deal,”

Roquemore said. “Old graduates still talk about this game and what it means.

“When one school branches off of another, there’s going to be a natural rivalry.”

And records can certainly be thrown out the window when these two play. Even though both programs have had their struggles over the past decade, the winner of the Battle of Oakwood can hold their head high in South Hall for the next year as winner of this game.

“We expect a dogfight on the field,” Roquemore said. “We know West Hall is very well-coached, and the atmosphere will be electric.”

Players who have been on the field in the Battle of Oakwood put memories from this game right up near the top. In recent history, the game two years ago that Johnson won 33-31, stands out for the Knights players.

After taking the lead when current Knights senior A.J. Millwood came away with a touchdown grab to take the lead, Johnson then held strong on defense on the Spartans’ final drive, forcing a turnover in the final seconds to win the game.

“The last play of that game in 2010 was my favorite memory,” Johnson linebacker Jose Martinez said. “(West Hall) snapped the ball to (quarterback) Shunquez (Stephens) and he fumbled the ball in our territory.”

West Hall returned the favor last season at Spartan Field. Manning recalls his team coming out with a bit more energy in the second half, and put the game away with a 56-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter from A.J. Stephens.

Lotti says the Spartans nonregion games against Johnson, Chestatee and Lumpkin County (all Class AAAA programs), before jumping into a highly competitive Region 7-AAA schedule will be a good gauge for where his team stands.

“It’s true, this is a big rivalry for our school,” Lotti said. “It’s tough to open with a game like that.

“We’re going to play every game to win, and hope to start the season 1-0.”

Harris and Martinez both say that playing the nonregion schedule at Johnson will pay off in the long run. Harris said they all got a vote and the majority decided with then-coach Paul Friel last spring that it was the best option to build the program back up in its numbers.

“I feel like in a couple of years, the decision to have played nonregion will be a positive,” Martinez said. “We just want what is best for the team and the program.”

At West Hall, the games keep getting more important after the opening three games against higher-classification schools. In October, the Spartans have a three-game stretch in order that includes Buford, East Hall and North Hall.

“Johnson is still our biggest game, but they’re all going to be big for us,” Manning said.