Alan Ingram's Seminole County team can all but clinch the region title tonight if his Indians beat bitter rival Miller County, which can lock up the 1-A crown if it wins.
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WHO: Miller County (8-1, 5-0) at Seminole County (6-2, 4-1).
WHAT: Annual “Backyard Brawl/Family Feud” rivalry game for region title.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today.
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DONALSONVILLE — Everyone knows what week it is for Miller County and Seminole County.
Call it by one of its nicknames — the “Backyard Brawl” or the “Family Feud” — or just Miller-Seminole week, one for the best high school football rivalries in Georgia takes place tonight in Donalsonville, where the Pirates and Indians meet for all this rivalry involves — and more.
“We've got a chance to clinch the region title, and they've got a chance to win the region title if they beat us,” Miller County coach Frank Killingsworth said. “There's a lot riding on this other than the regular — and the regular is enough.”
The “regular” is what makes this game so special, so unique, so down-right fun, because the bordering counties empty out and fill up the football stadium once a year when the two rivals square off.
“You know we're a K-through-12 school, and even the kindergarten kids get fired up for this game,” Killingsworth said. “People of all ages get ready for this game. We have a big pep rally and I think they have a big pep rally and maybe they have a parade. I'm not sure what they do. I don't venture down there this time of year.”
There's no parade. They don't need one at either place. There will be a parade of fans pouring into Seminole Stadium tonight, where it will be standing-room only in the 3,500-seat facility.
“I think they have some kind of bonfire and burn an Indian,” said Seminole coach Alan Ingram, who has coached at both places and loves the rivalry. “We don't burn anything. We don't need to. I don't think there's a better rivalry in Georgia. It's brother against brother, cousins against cousins. It's bragging rights down here in South Georgia. People talk about this game all year. The minute this game is over, they will be talking about next year's game.”
Miller is 8-1 and 5-0 in the Region 1-A race and plays its final region game tonight. Seminole is also unbeaten in the region at 4-0, but must face Mitchell County (4-1) in its finale next Friday.
If Miller wins, the Pirates capture their first region title since 2009 when they went 4-0 and beat Seminole, 19-6. The Indians won, 29-7, in 2010, and then romped last year on the way to the region title and a trip that took them to the third round of the state playoffs, beating Miller, 48-6. It was 48-0 at halftime.
But that was the best team in Seminole's history, and no one thought the Indians would do much after losing seven key players who started on both sides of the ball, including tailback Chris Brown, who was The Herald John Reynolds Player of the Year.
Killingsworth was always worried about his biggest rival, and he wasn't surprised to see Seminole bounce back from a 55-20 opening-night loss to Early County.
“We opened that game and stunk it up,” Ingram said. “I kept pushing it for us to run plays and kind of forced it, and I didn't want a running clock in the second half. There was only one way to go then, and we needed to run as many plays as we could to get better.”
Most of Seminole's critics buried the Indians after that lopsided loss.
"We got beat so bad against Early County (people didn't think we were any good), but the score doesn't mean anything to me,” Ingram said. “We had to man-up after that. We had a bunch of babies who wanted somebody else to do it for them.”
Seminole was young and with little experience, but Ingram watched his kids change, and just get better and better.
“They changed, absolutely,” he said. “We went up and beat Turner the next week, and then lost to Clinch (13-12) and we had the guy wide open (for a two-point conversion) to win the game and didn't get him the ball.”
Seminole has been unbeaten since, winning five in a row, despite a wave of injuries. Ingram has spread the ball around, and because of youth and injuries, the Indians have seen a number of running backs get the ball.
Quarterback Jakhari Martin has rushed for 725 yards on 100 carries, and running backs Daquan Hamlet (76 carries for 395 yards), freshman Thomas Aiken (45 carries for 454 yards for a 10.0 average) and sophomore Javante Smith (61 carries for 389 yards) have all had their moments.
Aiken has played sparingly because of a separated shoulder, but the Indians have found a way to run by everyone of late. The team has rushed for 2,290 yards on 335 carries and is averaging 6.4 yards every time someone carries the ball.
They will be ready to run tonight.
Miller arrives as one of the best Class A teams in the state, and unbeaten against Class A opponents. The only loss came to Early, which beat Miller, 21-6, the second week of the season. The Pirates have won seven in a row since, including a win against Marion County, which was ranked in the Top 10 in the Class A state poll at the time. The Pirates aren't ranked but have been getting votes every week for the last month, while Seminole has been getting votes in the state poll the last two weeks.
Killingsworth, who has had some incredible players, including Division I star T.T. Barber last year, said that's not the case with this year's team.
“We don't have any superstars on this team,” he said. “In the Marion County game, we had six different players gain between 35 and 45 yards that night. People around here are used to talking about the one star. Last year it was T.T., but this year people are talking about the whole team. We've got kids who are very athletic, good football players, but we don't have that one player that people are used to.”
The Pirates have seen Marvin Grant (900 yards), Brandon Benton (600 yards), Jacoby Jones (500 yards) and T.J. Means (500 yards) all run the ball this year, and fullback Rod Williams has come in on short-yardage plays and scored six touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Algin Merritt has grown up a lot. He has thrown for 400 yards and run for 100 more. Killingworth said the key to this year's one-for-all, all-for-one offense has been his offensive line, a group that has carried Miller to the brink of a region title: Nick Huntley, David Sisson, Luke Sheffield, Jackson Fleet and Jakell Rosebrough have done the job that Sisson promised they would do back in August when he said all the running backs had to do was run behind the line, because the line would be there to lead the way. Those kids have done just that.
Back in August, Killingsworth laughed at the idea that Seminole, which lost a truck-load of talent, would be down this season.
"Don't let Ingram fool you and tell you he doesn't have anything,” he joked. "Seminole will be there.”
Sure enough, he was right.
Seminole’s kids have grown up and roll into their biggest game of the year on a five-game winning streak with everyone in both counties talking about the region title being on the line tonight.
"We're right where we wanted to be,” said Ingram, whose team is 6-2 overall.
Mitchell County, meanwhile, is still in the hunt for the playoffs. The Eagles have one region loss — 21-20 to Miller. The Eagles have won four in a row, and have a bye week after pounding Calhoun last week.
Mitchell lost 14 starters and had just six players in the spring, but first-year coach Larry Cornelius' kids have had a run of their own. They beat Calhoun, 42-14. K.J. Pollard ran back a kick 60 yards for a TD and rushed for a touchdown, and Anfreenee Williams led the Eagles with 88 yards on the ground and a touchdown. Daquan Williams, Bruce Bryant and Jacoby Belvin all rushed for touchdowns.
"I took out the starters when it was 33-0,” Cornelius said. "We will see what happens (between Seminole and Miller) tonight and what happens next week. We're hoping we can get in the playoffs. I think if we get there, we can make some noise.”
If Seminole wins tonight, Mitchell could force a three-way tie with a win against Seminole in next week's finale, but in that scenario, Miller would win the tiebreaker because the Pirates have the best overall record against Class A teams, and with the new power-rating format for the playoffs, no one is sure how many teams from the region will qualify for the playoffs. There's a chance only the region champ will make it to the postseason, which makes tonight's game even bigger.
It's big enough already.
"It's for first place and it's Seminole,” Killingsworth said. "You don't have to say anything to them to get ready for this game.”
Ingram smiled and said. "All we have to say is, 'We're playing those folks.’ ”
That’s Seminole and Miller.