Rabun County coach Jaybo Shaw and Union County coach Brian Allison have probably broken bread together before. They’re probably friends off the field.
But every time this year, there are no niceties. No socializing. It’s all about one thing: beating the other.
“We don’t like them, and they don’t like us,” Shaw said this week as his Wildcats prepared to take on Allison’s Panthers with yet another region title on the line. Kickoff is slated for 7:30 p.m. at Union County’s Mike Colwell Memorial Stadium in Blairsville.
“We respect them but this week is all about beating them. It’s a great rivalry that our community, school, and team looks forward to every year.”
It is the fourth time in six years the two programs’ annual tilt will have decided the Region 8-2A crown. So far, the Panthers have been oh-fer dropping the previous three region title battles and five straight overall in the series going back to 2012. In fact, Union County is still looking for its first region title since 1973.
“It’s a huge game for us. Nobody wants to lose to anyone five times in a row, especially to your rival, so that makes this one that much bigger,” Allison said. “We would love to get that first one in a while. If we can do it against them, even better.”
The end results are already known. The winner will take the title and the No. 1 seed into next week’s playoffs. The loser will take the No. 2 seed.
On paper it looks like a toss-up. Both teams come with identical 9-0 overall records, 6-0 in Region 8-2A play. Rabun County is ranked fifth in Class 2A while the Panthers are ranked eighth.
It will be a showdown of two of the state’s best QBs. Rabun County sophomore sensation Gunner Stockton (35 TDs, 4 INT) is in or near the top 5 in the state, all classifications, with 2,399 yards passing, which leads Class 2A. Panthers’ senior Pierson Allison (26 TDs, 2 INT) is right behind with 2,361 yards, which is also in the top six, all classifications, and is second in Class 2A.
The offenses follow their lead. Rabun County is second in Class 2A in scoring at 48.2 points per game and the Panthers are third at 44.6 ppg. The Wildcats have scored 44 or more in seven straight games while Union County has a 74 and a 60 point output already this season.
“Two great quarterbacks and two really good offenses,” Allison said. “Gunner is a tremendous player. We have to find a way to contain him; keep him in the pocket. But we also have to slow down their running backs."
“Both of these guys can really throw it,” Shaw said. “You have to have your quarterback play well, especially in a game like this. But I think the line play will be the biggest key. The guys up front have to play well and protect."
But it may be the defenses that decide this one. Rabun is yielding just 12.0 ppg while the Panthers are giving up just 14.8 ppg. The Wildcats have produced 18 takeaways, including 11 INTs, for a plus-12 ratio. The Panthers have snagged 19 takeaways, including 13 INTs, for a plus-13 ratio.
“The defensive line play will be huge also if they get pressure. The offenses are both good but we really like where our defense is right now,” Shaw said. “We have really been able to get takeaways this year and I’m hoping we can get a few more (Friday night).”
“To me the key is the turnover battle. Poor field position also,” Allison said. “That is what hurt us last year and you have win that battle in games like this. The team that eliminates the mistakes will win.”
The last time the two teams met in Blairsville with a region title on the line was in 2014, an eventual 45-31 Rabun County victory. In fact, the Panthers are just 6-19 all-time at home against their arch-rivals. Their last home win in the series came in 2010.
But despite the seeming lack of success, Allison said there is no place like home.
“Home field absolutely matters,” he said. “You get to stay in your routines. Your fans are there. You get to relax in a familiar fieldhouse.
“We’re expecting a huge crowd and a great atmosphere. Hopefully we can make this one one to remember.”