By Donald Heath
Special for the Effingham Herald
SPRINGFIELD — Effingham County coach John Ford knows a thing or two about football rivalries.
Growing up in Snellville, he played in the Brookwood-Parkview game. Those schools separated by less than seven miles in Gwinnett County.
Ford coached in the Roswell-Milton game. Those schools within a 10-minute drive in DeKalb County.
And last year, Ford walked the sidelines for his first ECHS-South Effingham cross-county matchup. He’ll be trying to win his second game in the Rebels-Mustangs rivalry Friday night.
“They are all very similar,” Ford said about his experiences in the three rivalries. “There are strong feelings on both sides (of the Effingham County-South Effingham rivalry) and the game is impactful to a lot of people.”
The Rebels-Mustangs rivalry originated when South Effingham High School was formed from the split of Effingham County High School in 1996.
The Rebels defeated the Mustangs 29-15 in the season opener of 1996.
SEHS’ first head football coach Mike Harper, now a Mustangs assistant, remembered the hoopla surrounding the inaugural meeting as the team bus turned from Ga. Hwy 17 to drive down Ga. Hwy 119. He said fans lined the final three miles to Rebel Field as if watching a parade.
“People came out of the woodworks to see that first game. It was an exciting time,” Harper said. “I didn’t talk about rivalry to the players, just let’s come out and play some football and let this rivalry thing take its course.”
The schools played twice in 1996 — SEHS won the second game 14-0 — and twice again in 1997, and once every year since with the Rebels holding a 16-12 advantage.
Extra bleachers are needed to accommodate crowds that often exceed 5,000.
Ford said a lot of fanfare surrounds the week leading to the game as well. The head coaches will speak at local rotary clubs. The schools will hold pep rallies.
“It’s a different type of game week,” Ford said. “Coaches will tell you that they are creatures of habit, but that all changed any way in 2020 (because of COVID). So we’ve all learned to adjust. Things will be different. The game is surrounded by a fun, festive atmosphere.”
Friday’s festive atmosphere will receive an extra jolt of yesteryear pomp during a pre-game ceremony when ECHS names the school’s athletic facility after long-time football coach Bob Griffith. The football stadium will be known as Rebel Field at Bob Griffith Stadium.
Griffith, a member of the Georgia High School Association’s Hall of Fame, turned around ECHS’ football fortunes and led the Rebels to a 129-67 record in 18 seasons (1981-1998). In 1987, the Rebels advanced to the Class AAAA state championship game.
Friday’s matchup will pit the two teams entering the rivalry clash on two-game winning streaks — the first time that has happened since 2015.
“Our kids are playing well and the coaches have done a great job preparing them,” said Ford about wins over Statesboro (32-10) and Southeast Bulloch (42-7) in consecutive weeks to even the Rebels’ record at 2-2.
South (2-1) has been equally impressive while notching victories over Islands (24-0) and Bradwell Institute (45-0). It was the first time in school history the school had back-to-back shutouts.
“(SEHS) is playing great defense and they’re playing aggressively and with confidence on offense,” Ford said. “(Coach Nathan Clark) is doing a great job. It should be a great game and a great night.”