You better believe this was a rivalry game. Don’t let anyone — anyone — convince you otherwise.
Because people don’t just pack into a stadium for “just another game.”
One play can’t make one side erupt in jubilation if this was “just another game.” Young men who see their hopes of a victory taken away with one kick and one horn blowing in the night don’t have tears streaming down their face after “just another game.”
Coaches don’t have their voice crack with emotion talking about their players after “just another game.”
You won’t see the joy that the Dalton fans threw out to their players on the field after “just another game.” You won’t see mamas holding their 260-pound babies in their arms the way some mamas did after “just another game.” More than 3,500 people don’t just fall silent at the end of “just another game.”
Dalton High School’s 31-28 win over Northwest Whitfield on Friday night in Tunnel Hill proved that even with Dalton holding a 28-5 advantage in the series against the Bruins, this is a rivalry in any possible way you could imagine.
And it is a rivalry to both teams.
“We were too pumped and bought into making this a little bigger than what it was, which was just another game,” Dalton coach Matt Land said.
Sorry, coach, it wasn’t. “Just another game” is coachspeak, and we all understand it. Coaches don’t want their teams to be too up or too down. They don’t want a little success come crumbling down with the slightest mistake. Coaches want teams to be very even. But we are all human and the emotional part of the game — especially in a game that means just a little bit more — comes to the forefront.
Last week in a win over Ridgeland, the Catamounts were very business-like after their win over the Panthers. They had done what they were supposed to do, and didn’t celebrate like they had accomplished anything more than what they expected. At Bruins Stadium, you saw the difference in the attitudes of both the coaches and the players.
“Just another game” can be very boring. This wasn’t. From the beginning, you knew it was different.
In addition to the added factor between schools and players who grow up with each other, this game was big for the implications. Both Northwest and Dalton had shown in the first half of the season that there was a gap between themselves and the other teams in Sub-region 7B-4A.
The winner was likely the sub-region champion — coachspeak aside, both teams should be favored through the sub-region schedule — and Dalton secured a spot in the region championship game and will be hosting a state playoff game at Harmon Field if it wins its last three sub-region games.
The fact that it came over a rival just makes it all the sweeter for the Cats and all the more hurtful for a Northwest team which looked to be in control of the game when Land said his team was too pumped up.
Down 14-7 and with Northwest poised to extend that lead out to a pair of touchdowns after converting a fake punt, Dalton needed someone to make a play. It came on a pass from Northwest quarterback Caleb Shiflett that was nearly perfect. It wasn’t underthrown, and if Shiflett had thrown it any harder, wide receiver Andy Whisenant wouldn’t have had a chance of catching it.
That it was such a good throw shows exactly how great the interception was by Jordan McKinney — a sophomore corner.
And that was just one of the great plays — by both sides, orange and white — which were on display Friday.
This was an epic battle and a heavyweight championship fight and a shootout and all of the other different ways you want to describe it.
It was all of those things and more with so many stars.
Jacob Webb proved that Northwest’s offense isn’t all about passing with 151 yards on 31 carries.
Payton Veraldi grew up in a hurry and took over the leadership jacket for the Dalton offense with the quarterback rushing for 112 yards and throwing for 79.
Tevin McDaniel provided the highlight play of the year with a 68-yard catch and run that saw him spin and sidestep and escape multiple tackles.
Chase Westfall proved that he can catch just about anything thrown his way at tight end for Dalton.
It was that kind of night — perhaps the best game ever in the history of the rivalry, as no other game in the series has been decided by a closer margin.
It was the kind of night that has coaches throwing out another cliché: “This is what makes Friday night so special.”
It certainly does, and regardless of the outcome, you got your money’s worth.
It takes a game of this magnitude with this amount of emotion and with this amount of quality play and quality players to make it special.
It doesn’t happen when you are playing “just another game.”
Chris Whitfield is a sports writer for The Dailt Citizen. Contact him at chriswhitfield @daltoncitizen.com.