They opened the season on opposite sides of one stadium, cheering against one another. But this afternoon fans from Calhoun and Ridgeland will crowd onto the same home side of the Georgia Dome and cheer for one another in their Georgia championship games.
The teams kicked off the season in thrilling back-and-forth fashion. Ridgeland tied the game with less than a minute remaining, but Calhoun answered with a touchdown just four seconds from the final buzzer to claim a 42-35 victory.
That is Ridgeland's only loss to this point, and it taught the Panthers the importance of playing until the final second -- a lesson they put to use in last week's Class AAAA semifinal when they scored the go-ahead points with less than a minute remaining, then held off Marist's final drive.
Calhoun, which won the state title last year in overtime, is making its fifth straight appearance in the Class AA state-title game, while Ridgeland is in uncharted territory. Not only had the Panthers never advanced past the second round before this season, but only four of their 48 players have been inside the Georgia Dome for any reason.
How quickly Ridgeland's players adjust to the enormity of both the surroundings and what's at stake against defending champion Sandy Creek could determine the outcome.
When the Yellow Jackets take the field at 2:30 to defend their title, and Ridgeland plays immediately following, both programs will have much larger than usual fan support. Many Ridgeland fans have made plans to go early to cheer for Calhoun, while many Yellow Jackets fans have said they will stay late to support the Panthers.
"I'm so excited for Coach [Mark] Mariakis and his team and community," Calhoun coach Hal Lamb said. "There is not a finer man in coaching than Mark Mariakis, and he's earned this shot. He told me their crowd will be rooting for us and I know ours will be pulling hard for them, which will be nice to see. I hope we both come home with titles."
Calhoun's championship last year was the first for a northwest Georgia program since 1974, and Ridgeland's opponent has won 55 of its last 57 games, so sweeping both titles today would be an amazing feat for the area. But considering Calhoun's ability to rise to the occasion and the job Mariakis and his staff have done in building Ridgeland's program -- after five one-win seasons before his arrival, Ridgeland has won at least seven games each of the last seven years -- and the vocal support each team will have from their combined fan bases, this could be the most magical day in the history of area Georgia programs.
"I can't even imagine what it would mean to the area to bring back two championship trophies," Mariakis said. "The 'ah-ha' moment for me was about an hour after our game last week, seeing so many folks still lingering on the field just because they didn't want the moment to end.
"There were people crowded from one 20-yard line to the other 20, still hugging and celebrating and replaying the game. I saw teenagers and grown men in their 60s all crying. They just weren't ready to go home, and you could see how much that win meant to the whole community."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...