North Hall High football coach David Bishop and Chestatee High coach Shaun Conley both said they try to downplay the heated rivalry between the two schools.
Their players, however, can’t help but acknowledge it.
“This whole week has been intense and moving by slowly,” War Eagles senior quarterback Storm Yarbrough said. “It’s all everybody is talking about. Getting North Hall at home makes it even better. Nothing compares to the way our team feels about this game.”
For the 16th time since the schools split in 2002 due to growing enrollment, North Hall and Chestatee will renew their annual yet lopsided rivalry at 7:30 p.m. tonight at War Eagle Stadium in Gainesville. The Trojans have won the matchup in every year except 2005, and they intend to keep it that way.
“I was here in 2001, so I saw the whole thing take place,” Bishop said. “Now we’re in a position where they’ve only beaten us once. Every year the kids talk about not being the team that loses and breaking that streak … It’s bragging rights for a whole year.”
The Class 4A War Eagles almost ended their drought against North Hall last year, falling 35-28 despite being across midfield when time expired.
That heartbreaker began Conley’s tenure at Chestatee, which he took over after the team went winless in 2015. But the War Eagles surged to four regular-season wins and a playoff appearance, momentum Conley hopes to build on this season.
Knocking off a bitter rival would make a season-opening victory that much sweeter.
“I know that some of our kids are neighbors with kids from North Hall. They live in very close proximity, they go to church together,” Conley said. “That makes it fun for them. I’m sure those kids are talking back and forth.”
Indeed, Yarbrough said students — even those who don’t play football — from both schools have kept up the chatter this week.
Those from North Hall have bragging rights on their side, though the Trojans lost 14 starters from last year’s squad that went 6-5 and reached the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
With workhorse rusher Kyle Bacus gone, Bishop is looking to quarterback David Seavey and a host of other backs to pick up the slack in his Wing-T offense. Several of those offensive players will also serve on defense and attempt to stop the War Eagles’ up-tempo spread attack.
The clashing styles add another layer of intrigue to this fierce rivalry.
“They’re ball-control and clock management, and we’re almost the other extreme,” Conley said. “We go fast and try to run as many plays as we can. It is a contrast of philosophies, but it all still boils down to blocking and tackling and those type of things.”
Seeing a spread squad so early in the non-region schedule is a boon for the Trojans, who will face similar offenses throughout their Region 7-3A slate.
Bishop entered his run-heavy team into several 7-on-7 passing tournaments over the summer, mostly to get his defense acclimated to seeing such tactics. Now that live game action is finally here, North Hall will find out how much the offseason work paid off.
“(Playing Chestatee) helps us a little bit, but every spread team is a little different, depending on personnel,” Bishop said. “Some people run it like Chestatee does. It’s different from week to week.”
War Eagles coaches expect Yarbrough to take a step forward in his second year running their spread system, especially with 1,300-yard rusher Nick Lyles lining up beside him.
The senior playmakers and their teammates are eager to finally get a leg up on their rivals once again. Yarbrough said the Junior War Eagles teams he played for routinely beat the Junior Trojans squads, but he hasn’t experienced a win against North Hall since eighth grade.
Yet Yarbrough insisted he and his teammates are trying to treat tonight’s contest like any other game in hopes of avoiding the added pressure that’s usually present when rivals meet.
But sometimes history and hostility are hard to ignore.
“We all see each other frequently, so there was a lot of talk when we got the schedule this year,” Yarbrough said. “ … We all grew up playing against each other ever since were 6, so we know a lot of them. At the same time, you set friendships aside and do what you’ve got to do.”