Archive for Thursday, July 31, 2008

The eephus pitch

July 31, 2008

I'll be honest, until Monday I'd never heard of Valdosta, Ga., a town of more than 48,000 in the southern part of the state which ESPN deemed, "TitleTown, USA." Just as surprisingly to me, Parkersburg, W.Va. came in second.

Last week, I wrote a column about such awards, referring specifically to the ESPYs and saying awards voted on by fans will always sway to the side of the bigger cities. With these awards, Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have the benefit of much bigger populaces and fan bases.

In this case, I stand corrected, and I think it illustrates that high school still reigns supreme when talking about passionate football fans. The Raiders may have the Black Hole and all the maniacal fans that pack that house every Sunday. Green Bay has the Cheeseheads and Lambeau. But only Valdosta - which took 29.2 percent of the nearly one million votes - has fans that care so much about receiving such a distinction that they'll vote, and vote, and vote and keep voting thousands of times (keep in mind Valdosta's population and consider it got nearly 300,000 votes).

Parkersburg finished with 24.4 percent of the votes, and Green Bay took third with 11.2 percent. Boston, often thought of as a passionate sports town with the Bruins, BoSox, Celtics and Patriots, came in fifth with 5.8 percent.

Valdosta, 220 miles south of Atlanta on the Florida border, boasts the Valdosta High Wildcats, the winningest high school football program in the nation. Nearby Lowndes County High has won three of the last four state championships.

As far as higher-level football, Valdosta State University, a Division II school, won the national championship in 2007. Pro Bowl linebacker Jesse Tuggle is a former Blazer, and J.D. Drew was born in and played high school sports in Valdosta.

But this recognition came from high school football.

The Wildcats have won 23 state championships and six national championships since the school's inception in 1913. That's the pedigree that built enthusiasm and passion within the community and led to this award. Lowndes County has five state championships since 1966.

But there are schools - high schools and colleges - and professional franchises that boast more titles. However right or wrong, what this says about high school football is it has the most passionate fans in the American sporting world.

Valdosta, and probably small towns throughout the south exude a whole different type of passion. It's a small, very intimate atmosphere where community pride and identity hinges on the performance of high school athletes on about 15 Friday nights a year. This exists, too, right here in De Soto.

The buzz of the Friday night lights is already cranking up.

People are wandering how many yards Logan Clark will throw for, how many picks Dylan Burford will register and whether that defense can be as solid as it was during 7-on-7 once the pads are on and players let it all hang out at full speed. I know I am. The twelfth man out there is already wandering too, because in small town sports that's what excites and enthuses people, and it's great.


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