These Crosstown Competitors Form One of High School Football’s Greatest Rivalries

What do you get when you combine the winningest high school football program in the country with one of the most consistently winning football programs in the state over the last three decades? You get what is known as one of the greatest rivalries in all of high school football – so great that it’s included in the Great American Rivalry Series, which recognizes the top high school football rivalries across the nation. This is the story of the Winnersville Classic, the annual showdown between Valdosta High School and Lowndes High School.

 

The Name

In 1977, Valdosta Daily Times sports editor Mike Chason, a native of south Georgia and recent graduate of Valdosta State University, wrote a story for the paper comparing the pro sports teams of Atlanta to the sports scene in Valdosta. While Atlanta was being called “Loserville” by mostly state and national sports writers, Chason replied in his column that Valdosta was doing very well with the success of its local sports teams and was worthy of the title “Winnersville.”

That term remained dormant until 1981, when Johnny B. Lastinger, a Valdosta High graduate and the executive vice-president of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce, decided to take advantage of the Winnersville designation. Even though Valdosta and Lowndes High had been playing each other every year since 1968, it was becoming obvious to everyone, including Lastinger, that the game was becoming much more competitive, especially with the arrival of head coach Joe Wilson at Lowndes.

Lastinger decided he wanted to make the annual football game more of a community-wide event and celebration, so beginning with the 1981 Valdosta vs. Lowndes game, he called it “The Winnersville Classic.” What had been just a game between the two local schools would become a week-long celebration involving the community, fans, players, and coaches, and the game would never be the same again.

 

The Early Years

The Valdosta Wildcats have been playing football since 1913, and with over 900 wins, 24 state championships, six national championships, and a bunch of region titles, they remain the winningest high school football team in the country. There were coaches before him, but it was Wright Bazemore who took over as the Wildcats’ head football coach in 1942 and built the foundation for the winningest football team in the country. The ’Cats still maintain that designation.

Lowndes High School opened its doors to students in 1966, and by 1968 was able to field a football team. The Vikings would begin playing crosstown rival Valdosta that same year, but it was a David-vs.-Goliath mismatch for the first decade or so, with Valdosta, boasting all those state and national championships – not to mention a 50-year head start – defeating the upstart Lowndes High in the teams’ first 11 games. Truth is, Lowndes would struggle against everyone else too, winning just 31 games in that first decade of football with four different head football coaches. But that was about to change.

 

Here Comes Joe

Tired of losing to their city school rival, and tired of just losing in general over the first decade of the team’s existence, Lowndes County school superintendent Sonny Martin decided to reach out to one of the “enemy,” longtime Valdosta assistant coach Joe Wilson. Martin brought in Wilson for an interview after hearing that the coach was not exactly happy with the Wildcats at the time.

Owen Prince, Lowndes County Schools’ director of information and athletic business, and a graduate of Lowndes High School, recalled what led to Wilson’s unhappiness at Valdosta.

“Joe had been passed over for the head coaching job at Valdosta twice,” Prince said. “The first time was when Bazemore retired, and they hired Charlie Green. Then, the second time was when they brought in Nick Hyder from Rome.”

Prince said that’s when Joe Wilson decided he would accept an invitation to go over and meet with Martin.

“So, Joe sits down with Martin and Sonny asks him, ‘Joe, why should I hire you?’” Prince said. “Joe told Martin, ‘I’ll give you three reasons: One, I’ll give you a winning season, which you’ve never had. Two, I’ll beat Valdosta, which you’ve never done. Three, I’ll win a state championship, which you’ve never won.’ Joe Wilson accomplished all three within three years.”

Former Valdosta assistant coach Jerry Don Baker, who played at Valdosta in the ’60s and coached at Valdosta from 1976-2006, said he was there when Wilson told Valdosta he was leaving.

“I was in the office when Joe Wilson threw his keys on Nick Hyder’s desk and told him, ‘Coach, we are going to whip your [butt] when you come to our place in two years,’ and that’s exactly what happened,” Baker said.

 

The Turnaround

Joe Wilson took over the Vikings football team in 1976, and right away encouraged the players to embrace their “country boy” personality and call themselves “Plowboys.” He led the Vikings to an 8-2 season, which included upset victories over Tift County and Thomasville High. Wilson had fulfilled his first promise to Martin: A winning season in his first try, something Lowndes had never before experienced.

That first Valdosta game with Wilson as coach of the Vikings didn’t lead to a win, but the effort was there, and it signaled that things were going to be different. Lowndes led 3-0 after the third quarter, and although Valdosta would score twice in the fourth quarter to win 14-3, it was obvious that things were indeed about to change.

 

7 to 2 We Beat Belue

In 1977, Wilson’s second season, he made good on his assurance to Martin that he was finally going to beat Valdosta, and on his boast to Hyder that he was going to ‘whip your [butt],’ by leading the Vikings to an incredible 7-2 win over the Wildcats in front of a frenzied Lowndes home crowd. That was Lowndes’ first win ever against Valdosta, whose quarterback was Buck Belue, the future University of Georgia star. According to Baker, the win inspired a year-long rally cry: “7 to 2 we beat Belue.”

John Lastinger, the son of Johnny B. Lastinger, played receiver at Valdosta and would be the guy who succeeded Belue at quarterback. The Wildcats’ loss to Lowndes and the close game the year before “were the turning points of the series, and turned it into a true rivalry,” Lastinger said. “That place [Lowndes’ home stadium] was rocking before the ’77 game, but we had known after that ’76 game that this game was going to be different, and it was.”

Joe Wilson had accomplished two of his three goals. When he knocked off the third one – a state championship, which Lowndes won in 1980 – Johnny B. Lastinger was prompted to concede this was more than just a game – it was a community event. The Winnersville Classic featuring Lowndes vs. Valdosta was born.

 

A Community Celebration

Despite having played each other since 1968, the Lowndes vs. Valdosta game didn’t become the Winnersville Classic until 1981. It came a year after the Vikings had won their first state championship in football, which gave the event a whole new perspective.

Lastinger’s vision was to bring the two fan bases together all week long for community-wide events. There was a golf tournament involving fans and coaches from both teams. Hyder, a devout Christian, brought fans and players from both teams together for an FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) banquet on Thursday night prior to the big game, allowing the two sides to fellowship over dinner. The coaches would each speak to the crowd during the banquet.

Baker said the cheerleaders from both teams would usually meet at one of the girls’ homes, and the groups would alternate each season. Bobby Green, a local business owner and Valdosta High supporter, would also host a lunch on a first come-first serve basis at his home, with fans invited. The head coaches would always come and speak to the small gathering. Baker said the bands from both schools began joining forces on the field before each game and would play the National Anthem together. Those were the low-key celebrations of Winnersville.

 

Plowboys vs City Slickers

When Wilson arrived, he saw that many among the Lowndes faithful were not too crazy about the references to the Vikings being known as the “country” school.

“Joe wanted us to embrace the country boy label,” Prince said. “He was a country boy and proud of it. So he came up with the name ‘Plowboys.’ He and then-band director Billy Martin ordered straw hats with ‘LHS Plowboys’ across the front, which the band wore during their halftime performance.”

Then, Prince said, prior to the 1979 game, Lowndes was warming up in their traditional crimson jerseys. When the teams returned to the locker room to get ready for the game, Wilson told his team to take off the crimson ‘Vikings’ jerseys, and the players were then given a dark black jersey with “Plowboys” across the front to change into. The Vikings ran onto the field with their new Plowboys jerseys, and the home crowd went nuts. Lowndes won the game 15-14.

The Plowboys name would serve as a rally point of sorts for Lowndes, establishing and embracing their underdog status, especially against the football WIldcats. Not to be outdone, Valdosta would come back with its own persona to counter the country boy image of Lowndes.

“The Valdosta fans had bumper stickers that read, ‘City Slickers’ and, ‘Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be plowboys,’” Prince said. “Lowndes came back with, ‘My heroes have always been plowboys.’”

 

Those Crazy Fans

Lowndes and Valdosta fans certainly embraced the Winnersville rivalry, showing their love for the home team and their disdain for the other side. For the most part, things were harmless. Occasionally, however, things got a little out of control. Prince recalled a prank that took place the week of the 1974 game.

“A few of the Lowndes students got together and built a Viking ship,” Prince said. “They worked on it all week. They hauled the ship over from Lowndes to Valdosta High in the middle of the night and put it in the pond in front of the school. A couple of students jumped in the water and secured the ship so that it would not float over to the shore.”

That next morning, as Valdosta faculty, students, and parents begin arriving at the school, they saw the huge Viking ship floating in the pond in front of their school. Prince said a few of the football players jumped in to try to bring it over to the shore, but that didn’t work. Their next option?

“They just burned the thing,” Prince said.

Around that same time, Prince recalled: “In the mid-’70s, a Lowndes student went to Cleveland Field and attached a Lowndes Vikings flag and hoisted it up to the top, but he wasn’t finished. The student then greased the entire flag pole from top to bottom, ensuring that it would not be very easy for Valdosta High maintenance to climb up to detach the Viking flag. So the Viking flag flew high and proud over the Valdosta stadium property, for at least a little while.”

Doug Henderson, whose sons Ashley, Justin, and Doug all played at Valdosta, recalled a prank in the mid-’90s that was designed to fire up the Wildcat players. But it missed its mark – literally.

“We had about 500 flyers printed with a nasty message directed at our players,” Henderson said. “It was designed to look like it was coming from Lowndes fans. We had a Valdosta booster, Charlie Whetherington, who knew a pilot, and they flew over a Valdosta practice the week of the game against Lowndes and dumped those flyers. The problem was the plane didn’t get low enough, and the wind blew the flyers all over the neighborhood next to the practice field.”

Henderson said neighborhood residents called the police, who came over to the Valdosta fields where he and other fans were watching practice.

“The police asked us about the flyers, and coach Jerry Don Baker came walking over and told the cops the plane had a Lowndes County Vikings license plate,” Henderson said with a laugh.

Lowndes athletic director Danny Redshaw said things have calmed down considerably between the two sides today, but there was a time when the Winnersville Classic put both Lowndes and Valdosta on high alert.

“We would have to hire extra security guards for the entire week of the game, starting on Sunday night, and it would last all week long until the game was over,” Redshaw said. “We still do that now, just not as much.”

Redshaw also talked about the days just before the game, when fans of both teams would cruise up and down Ashley Street, hurling insults out the window at each other. In some cases, the insults would turn from verbal to something more physical.

“It got to be a normal thing to see fans pulling over off of Ashley Street and Patterson Street and getting out of their cars to fight,” Redshaw said. “Fortunately, that didn’t happen too often.”

 

A Bounty on Buck

In the 1977 game, there were no fights, but there was a bounty placed on Buck Belue – not to hurt the Valdosta QB great, but to take a piece of his number 8 jersey off his back and to the Lowndes sideline. $100 would be given to the Lowndes player who could produce a piece of Buck’s jersey. Coach Jerry Don Baker confirmed the rumor.

“Oh yeah, they had a bounty out for Buck’s jersey,” Baker said.

John Lastinger remembers that game and the play.

“One of their defensive linemen, Charles Bergman, got hold of Buck’s jersey at the sleeve, and ripped it right off his back,” Lastinger said. “I remember Buck had to go to the locker room and get another jersey. I think it was number 1.”

Baker, who coached from 1976-2006, recalled showing up on Monday morning the week of the Lowndes game, year after year, to a Valdosta High campus awash in hundreds of rolls of toilet paper, and walls and windows painted with pro-Lowndes messages.

“It was a real mess,” he said. “Our maintenance folks earned their pay that week.”

Prince recalled how, prior to the 1985 Winnersville game, an idea was hatched to have someone ride a mule out to midfield before the Valdosta game, staying true to the plowboys image Lowndes had cultivated.

“We had a fellow by the name of Freddie Steedley who had a mule, and he agreed to put on the overalls and straw hat and ride the mule out to midfield before the game,” Prince said. “We just knew the crowd would go crazy, and it would fire up our players.”

Well, the only thing that went crazy was the mule.

“Even though we had practiced riding the mule out there on the field several times, we had not done it with 12,000 screaming fans,” Prince recalled with a laugh. “So, we brought the mule out, with Freddie riding the thing, and that mule started out toward midfield just as we had practiced, but then the crowd roared, and it scared the poor mule so much that he just stopped in his tracks and Freddie went flying off over the front of it.”

But the mule wasn’t done.

“That mule then took off, without Freddie to guide him, straight towards the Valdosta sideline,” Prince said. “Their entire sideline of players and coaches tried to climb the wall to get into the stands, and some just took off running towards the opposite end of the stadium.”

A couple of the mule’s handlers were able to catch the mule and bring him back to the field house.

“That would be the last time we tried anything like that,” said Prince. “The Lowndes administration was not happy about our little stunt.”

Calvin McGuyrt, who claims to have attended more Wildcat games than any other living person since #1 Wildcat fan David Waller passed away, founded and hosted The Wildcat Tradition TV show for 33 years. The show was a weekly production featuring McGuyrt and the Valdosta head coach talking about the previous game and looking ahead to the upcoming game.

McGuyrt also emceed the FCA banquet that was held the Thursday before the big game. He recalled how Valdosta supporters would take the opportunity in front of a full house of fans from both sides to get the ’Cats fired up just one more time.

“During the banquet, Valdosta police would bring in a black wreath that said, ‘Death to the Wildcats from the Lowndes High Vikings,’” McGuyrt recalled.

Tales like McGuyrt’s are part of a timeless record shared by Valdosta-area locals. It’s an oral history that will never die – in fact, it just keeps growing, year after year, down there in Winnersville.

 

Top Performances

Those who were part of the game shared the plays and players they remember the most.

Randy McPherson, Lowndes Head Coach, 2002-2019

The longtime Lowndes coach was quick to offer his memory of the best performance he saw in the Classic.

“Tevin Tisdale in the 2018 game,” said MacPherson. “No question about it.”

The talented running back rushed 21 times for 414 yards and 6 TDs, leading Lowndes to a 71-35 victory.

McPherson’s own performance is one of the best among the head coaches in the Classic. He won 12 of his 18 games against Valdosta. He was the most successful Lowndes coach against the Wildcats in the series.

 

Mike O’Brien, Valdosta Assistant Coach, 1981-2006; Head Coach, 1997-2003

“There were so many, but I remember Todd Peterson in the 1987 game kicking a 47-yard field goal to beat Lowndes at their place,” O’Brien said.

 

Ashley Henderson, Valdosta Offensive Lineman, 1994-1997

“The best player that I played with was our quarterback, Kareem Wilson, in 1995,” Henderson recalled. “The best players I saw play in the game were quarterback Cedric Hatten for us, and for Lowndes it was Greg Reid. He was unbelievable.”

Reid is forever known for “The Run” against Valdosta in the 2007 game. The 55-yard scamper, with Reid zig-zagging his way through the entire Valdosta defense on his way to the endzone, sealed the victory for the Vikings against the visiting Wildcats.

 

Jerry Don Baker, Valdosta Assistant Coach, 1976-2006; Player, 1967-1970

“I remember in the 1981 game, quarterback John Bond took off down the Lowndes sideline and ran for an 80-yard touchdown,” Baker said. “After the game, Joe Wilson told me, ‘Baker, as John Bond was running down the sideline, I came real close to sticking my foot out and tripping him, but I changed my mind.’”

Baker said of all the great players he coached against in the Winnersville Classic, none was better than James “Wildman” Carter.

 

Marcus Rogers and Johnny Holcolmb

Rogers was the Wildcats’ team manager in 1994 and a top Wildcat supporter. Holcomb oversees the Wildcat Football Museum and sits on the Board of Directors for the Valdosta Touchdown Club.

These two Wildcat backers agree on their most memorable moment: “The Comeback.”

In the 2011 game, Lowndes was leading 17-7, and with only 1:14 remaining in the game, looked like they were on their way to their eighth straight win in the Winnersville Classic. Following a Lowndes punt, Valdosta took possession around midfield. Wildcat quarterback Shelby Wilkes leads the ’Cats on a three-play drive, highlighted by a 47-yard screen pass to Charlie Albritton that took the ball to the Vikings 6-yard line.

On the next play, Wilkes found Sherrod Inman in the back of the end zone to cut the lead to 17-14. Then, with only 49 seconds remaining, Valdosta recovered Dale Kent’s onside kick and from the Valdosta 47-yard line, Wilkes lead his Wildcats down the field with another TD pass, this one to running back Avery Burney, to put Valdosta on top 21-17 and leave everyone in the stadium stunned.

There was still a chance for the Vikings if they could return the kickoff, but they never got the chance. Kent’s second straight onside kick was again recovered, Wilkes took the snap and a knee, and that was that. The most improbable win for either team was this one, with Valdosta overcoming a 17-7 deficit in just 1:14 to win the Winnersville Classic over Lowndes.

The current Winnersville series record stands at 36 wins for Valdosta and 24 for Lowndes heading into the 2022 season.

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