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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / McCallie defenders swarm Calhoun running back Jerrian Hames during Friday night's game at Finley Stadium. McCallie won 38-22 thanks to a decisive stretch early in the fourth quarter.

The Battle for the Border.

They didn't call it that when Calhoun High School traveled to Finley Stadium on Friday night to meet McCallie School. Despite the outrageous quality of the two football programs — McCallie is the reigning TSSAA Division II-AAA champion and also won state in 2001; Calhoun's four GHSA titles include three from 2011 to 2017 under coach Hal Lamb, who has since retired — this was a game thrown together at the last minute due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

So in that sense, it was something of a miracle that it happened at all. But that doesn't mean it isn't an idea that needs to be strongly considered moving forward. And not just a yearly meeting of the Yellow Jackets and the Blue Tornado, though that would certainly be interesting, despite McCallie's relatively easy 38-22 victory.

No, it needs to pull in one team from the southeastern corner of Tennessee and one team from the northwestern corner of Georgia each season. Imagine Baylor School facing Dalton. Or Cleveland High against Ridgeland. Or Tyner Academy versus Gordon Lee.

You could print up T-shirts each year proclaiming the "The Battle for the Border" with drawings of each school's helmet included. You could award a trophy. Maybe make it a bit of a festival for the fans, complete with food trucks and giant inflatables, the way Finley Stadium used to be when the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision title game was played there.

McCallie senior defensive back Jackson Burns, who's getting some attention from small colleges in recruiting circles, even brought up the collegiate vibe when asked how he'd enjoyed the game.

"I'm honestly surprised we haven't had anything like that before," Burns said. "The atmosphere at Finley is really cool. It's somewhat like a college atmosphere. It think it was a great experience for our team."

That said, the idea has never gotten off the ground because of statewide scheduling conflicts. Georgia and Tennessee don't operate on the same prep football calendar. Because schedules are made in two-year windows — at least until the coronavirus arrived to make a mockery of them — and Tennessee's change on even years while Georgia's (and Alabama's) are reworked on odd ones, it's apparently too difficult a task to set up a single game between a Georgia school and a Tennessee school.

According to one Tennessee high school administrator who shall remain nameless, the fault for that lies more with the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, which would apparently prefer for its members fill their nonregion schedules with in-state schools. Keep the money all in the family, so to speak.

And there is certainly merit in that, especially now, with so much economic uncertainty at almost every high school in the state.

But there is also merit in games such as the one Calhoun and McCallie staged Friday night, even though such a contest would not have happened if both schools hadn't suddenly had the same unexpected open date because of late cancellations due to COVID-19. The game was actually announced exactly one week before it was played. Yet everything went off without a hitch, from fans socially distancing in the stands to a stunning performance by the Calhoun marching band, which would put a lot of college bands to shame.

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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Head football coaches Clay Stephenson of Calhoun, left, and Ralph Potter of McCallie talk before Friday night's high school matchup at Finley Stadium.

"Other than the score, it really was fun," said Calhoun coach Clay Stephenson, now in his second season after replacing the legend Lamb. "I told our guys at halftime, 'We're in a heavyweight fight.' Just a great experience. We learned a lot tonight."

McCallie coach Ralph Potter agreed.

"Great game to watch," he said after watching the Blue Tornado rebound from a 22-19 deficit at the start of the fourth quarter by scoring three touchdowns in less than a minute early in the period. "Calhoun's got a good team. That's a really proud program. Good win for us."

So what would it take for the idea of "The Battle for the Border" to become more than wishful thinking?

Start with the state athletic associations of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee designating one weekend a season, preferably in early September, as an open scheduling weekend. This is not the same as a bye week. This is a chance for each school to schedule anyone it wants. In state. Out of state. The first football team from Mars to land here. Doesn't matter.

That's really it, along with the folks who run Finley putting together an attractive enough package to make one Tennessee high school and one Georgia high school from this area want to play in "The Battle for the Border."

Asked Friday night if he liked such an idea, McCallie assistant headmaster Kenny Sholl — who was part of a Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe team that won at Calhoun 46 years ago — enthusiastically replied: "Oh, gosh, yes. Two communities, two tradition-rich programs. This is what it's all about."

Or at least what it could be about once every season at Finley if the powers that be would exercise a little creative thinking.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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