Regardless of which team wins tonight's mammoth small-school game between Class 2A's second-ranked Boyd-Buchanan and 1A's top-ranked South Pittsburg, the real winners are those of us who love high school football.
Both coaching staffs should be applauded for not ducking out of a game that doesn't have to be scheduled.
While many of our other area teams filled their nondistrict weeks against lesser competition, both the Buccaneers and Pirates historically have loaded theirs with playoff-caliber competition. It's no coincidence those two programs are typically two of the last area teams standing almost every postseason.
"Every time we play them, we get better," Boyd-Buchanan coach Grant Reynolds said. "Both defenses were just relentless last year. It was just like a playoff game. To gain even a yard was like robbing a bank because kids on both sides have a lot of pride in their program and neither side wants to give up anything.
"These are the games that will have us prepared for the atmosphere and the competition we'll see in the playoffs. If you're going to win championships, you have to get used to playing in these type games."
The Bucs' nondistrict games have included Red Bank (No. 1 in 4A), Howard (a 2008 3A region champion), Marion County (which advanced to the 2A semifinals last year) and tonight's opponent. Over the past decade, Boyd-Buchanan hasn't backed down from anybody, regardless of size or tradition, having played nonleague games against a mixture of perennial powers and much larger programs such as Red Bank, Baylor, Fulton, Tyner, Howard, East Ridge, Goodpasture, Rhea County, David Lipscomb, Walker Valley, Cookeville, Christ Presbyterian Academy and Loudon.
South Pittsburg's nonleague schedule has included just one 1A foe in Vic Grider's 13 years as head coach. And this year the Pirates' schedule includes eight teams that have been state-ranked.
Both teams' average margin this year is 46-9, and since its narrow loss at Red Bank, Boyd-Buchanan has beaten its last four foes by an average of 52-9.
By Tuesday afternoon, several Bucs fans had already put their stadium chairs on the bleachers to claim their spot for a game that still was about 72 hours away. Reynolds said the biggest home crowd in program history was the 2003 playoff game against South Pittsburg, which drew more than 6,000. He expects an even larger crowd tonight.
With athletic teams feeling the pinch of the current economic struggles, a certain big gate is another reason to schedule top-flight competition.
"We'll order double the food and drinks we would for a typical game," Reynolds said. "We'll have people parking as far as across the highway at First Cumberland Presbyterian, and we'll have a shuttle ready to bring those people to the stadium. There's a lot more energy, and you can just sense around campus that this one is different."
Although the teams had met for several years, the area's best small-school rivalry actually began the second week of the 1996 season. Before then, in the 19-year history of Boyd-Buchanan football, the Bucs had experienced as many winless seasons (2) as winning records and had never qualified for the playoffs. But with an entirely new coaching staff, including Reynolds as defensive coordinator, the Bucs shocked the area with a 17-6 win over top-ranked South Pittsburg.
"That was the turning point for our whole program," Reynolds said. "It gave the kids confidence that they could beat anybody."
Since then, Boyd-Buchanan has become a perennial power itself, with one state championship and two overtime losses from two others. The Bucs now are in line to win their eighth district or region title.
Last year the Pirates stopped the Bucs at the 1 on a two-point conversion attempt with 31 seconds remaining to secure a one-point win.
"I think there's just a lot of mutual respect on both sides," Grider said. "Our schedule has nearly gotten the better of us because we've lost seven starters since the season began. But regardless of what happens tonight, I think both teams will be better prepared for the playoffs because of it."