As July comes to a close, the new high school football season begins to take shape right here in Statesboro with the Erk Russell Classic on August 19 and 20.
What was once a two-game blip on the South Georgia high school football radar has now boomed into an eight team, two-day event to be held at Paulson Stadium. Teams from Georgia and – for the first time - South Carolina are set to do battle under the lights in Statesboro in an event that has grown exponentially over the past four years.
“This event was designed to give high school kids a chance to play in a college venue with a big game feel,” said Isiah Farrell, President of the Eagle Football Alumni Association – which is the primary organizer for the event. “We want to do everything we can to give these kids the college experience of playing in a big game.”
The new turf field at Paulson has allowed the EFAA to expand the event to eight teams and attract bigger name teams to bring more notoriety to the event.
“The sprint turf is the main reason we’ve been able to expand,” Farrell says. “This material will be able to hold up better over a longer period of time and even break it in for Georgia Southern a little bit before they play Savannah State.”
The ultimate goal is to keep adding bigger teams from around the state, particularly bigger powers like Grayson, Alpharetta and the Atlanta metro schools. According to Farrell, the better the schools, the more attention will be drawn to the event.
“With the (Corky Kell Classic) in Atlanta getting bigger and bigger, we’re having more teams call us to see if they can get in, almost to the point where we have a wait list,” Farrell said. “We certainly don’t want to diminish the teams we have playing around here – but the schools like Sandy Creek are what will bring the TV networks here.”
Farrell says the Classic hopes to have an EPSN or Fox Sports deal within the next couple of years. Georgia Southern color analyst and EFAA member Terry Harvin has connections to both networks and is heading up the deal talks.
The 8 p.m. game on the second day of play certainly has the kind of power to attract a TV audience. Perennial South Carolina power Fort Dorchester will take on Georgia Class AAAA title contender Sandy Creek in what Farrell calls the “Thrilla in Manilla” of the event.
From South Carolina, Fort Dorchester brings plenty of tradition and notoriety from the Palmetto State. The 2015-16 Class AAAA state champions have produced the likes of NFL pro bowlers like Carlos Dunlap, Robert Quinn and Super Bowl Champion Byron Maxwell.
“It’s a real honor for us to be invited down here to play a team the caliber of Sandy Creek,” said Fort Dorchester head coach Steve Laprad. “We’re ready to make the next step onto the national level and this is a perfect opportunity to do that.”
On the other side, Sandy Creek brings three recent state titles to the table as well as a bounty of Division-I talent. The fighting Patriots already have three players committed to D-1 schools in the class of 2017 with three others with offers on the table. Of course, Sandy Creek is also famous for Calvin Johnson, the NFL record-holding wide receiver who played in Tyrone from 2000 to 2003.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun for our kids to have a chance to play in a college stadium in a college setting,” said Sandy Creek head coach Chip Walker. “We’ve been preparing for this game since it was finalized.”
Saturday’s 5 p.m. game brings the local flair with nearby Screven County taking on Bluffton, a South Carolina team that competes at the state’s Class AAA level and that has been to a state title game as recently as 2011.
“As close as we are to the border, there are times we feel more like a Georgia team than a South Carolina team,” said Blufton head coach Ken Cribb. “We’ve played teams from Georgia regularly and feel right at home here.”
Screven County will appear as the local team and is coming off of back-to-back 10-2 seasons at the Class AA level under head coach Ron Duncan – now in his sixth year with the Gamecocks. Last season Screven County finished the runner-up in its region to Jefferson County and made it to the second round of the playoffs. Seventeen starters return off the 2015 squad, but only five seniors make up that returning 17.
“We’re still going to be very young with six seniors in our entire program,” Duncan said. “In reality, this is a chance for that weird mix to see some real completion and up our non-region schedule.”
Harrell mentioned it is important for the Classic to have a local team in order to keep playing it in Statesboro. As for which area team will participate year by year, Harrell says there will be many factors to take in.
“We’re really looking for who’s doing well at the time of selection,” Farrell says. “A good local team will put people in the seats, we can’t depend on outside teams for attendance every year. Benedictine (Savannah) will be next year’s local representative, and after that you’ll just have to meet the criteria.”
Meanwhile, on Aug. 19, the Classic gets warmed up with four teams from Georgia. South Effingham takes on Tift County at 5 p.m. before Effingham County plays Coffee County under the lights at 8 p.m.
Heritage Bank will be the principal sponsor for the event, and while Harrell said he was very appreciative of a local bank putting their name on the event, he hopes to have a corporate sponsor in the coming years to go along with a television broadcast.
“We’re talking like a Riddell or even Shaw,” Farrell says. “We’ve had communications with Shaw, because their CEO Chuck McClure is a Georgia Southern Grad. The bigger the event gets, the better chance we’ll have of landing a big, corporate sponsor.”
Tickets to the event will be on presale for $10 at Georgia Southern Ticket office or at any of the participating high schools. Tickets will also be available at the door for $15.