Editor's note: This preseason, The Anniston Star looks at the top faces, top rivalries, most-anticipated matchups and top local stadiums. In this article, we examine the top rivalries.
Rivalry games, mostly intra-county rivalries, fueled high school football’s growth in popularity in this part of east Alabama.
From the infancy of the high school game in the 1920s until 1966, state championships were mythical. What mattered, what fans remembered from previous seasons and anticipated in the coming season, were rivalries like Anniston and Gadsden — the series that made former Anniston coach E.D. (Chink) Lott a legend. Most rivalries were played late in the year. The annual Clay Bowl between Clay County and Lineville often was played on Thanksgiving Day with spectators dressed in their finest.
In 1966, the Alabama High School Athletic Association experimented with postseason play. Four Class 4A teams, the era’s “big school” classification, were chosen for the semifinal round of a state championship playoff with Robert E. Lee of Montgomery eventually taking the crown.
The following year all four classes had four-team playoffs. With such a slight chance of reaching the playoffs, even when the number of teams was expanded from four to eight, rivalries still mattered most. Anniston versus Oxford, Saks versus Wellborn, Oxford versus Saks, Anniston versus Wellborn and Wellborn versus Oxford regularly drew crowds of 8,000 to 10,000 for regular-season games.
All that began to change in 1984 when the AHSAA changed its alignments from four classes to six classes. The greatly expanded playoff system included 32 teams from each class. Victories in area games, and later region games, became critical. Fans focused more of their attention on postseason success rather than rivalry wins. In addition, schools such as Oxford simply outgrew their natural rivals while consolidation ended the Clay Bowl, the longest continuously played series in the state.
Still, a few rivalries have survived. Five of the best are examined below, listed by the date the game will be played this season:
Wellborn at Saks: In the past 10 years, these two have played eight times and Saks holds a slim 5-3 margin. The rivalry began in 1962 — just two years after Saks fielded its first varsity team under Buster Douthit. It continued uninterrupted until 2010 and 2011 when Saks played in a nine-team region and was forced to play a region opponent in Wellborn’s place as its season opener. Until then, the Panthers and the Wildcats had played in 48 straight seasons. Overall, Wellborn dominates by a 35-15 margin. The Panthers won the first six meetings, four by shutout. From 1980 through 1986, Wellborn won seven straight. Saks broke that streak with a 10-0 win in 1987 but the Panthers took the next eight meetings. The Wildcats had three straight wins from 1996 through 1998 and won three more from 2007 through 2009.
Cherokee County at Piedmont: This series between two schools fewer than 20 miles apart had been dormant for two years when Steve Smith arrived at Piedmont in 2006 even though the two schools had played off and on since Piedmont’s second football season in 1925. Smith, a former Cherokee County quarterback, got the rivalry going again in 2008. Cherokee County put up big numbers to win in 2008 and 2009. Since then, the Bulldogs have been the team with the big point totals good for four straight victories. Recent results are typical of the series overall — lots of streaks of three and four straight wins by one school or the other.
Oxford at Gadsden City: Gadsden City is the closest thing Oxford has these days to a natural geographic rival. The Yellow Jackets didn’t have much history with Gadsden High before the consolidation of that school, Emma Sansom and Litchfield that created Gadsden City High in 2006. The next eight seasons found Oxford and Gadsden City in the same Class 6A region and the series has been competitive. Each team has four wins if you ignore the win Oxford had to forfeit in 2007. Each program likes the matchup enough to continue it even with Gadsden City moving to the new 32-team Class 7A.
Munford at Lincoln: Lincoln plays in Class 5A for the next two seasons while Munford remains in 4A but no one considered ending this series after 68 straight years of at least one game. Brad Wallace, a Lincoln graduate, looks to avenge last year’s loss in his first season as the Golden Bears’ head man. Lions coach Will Wagnon wants to improve his 2-2 record against Lincoln. There’s a lot more to this series than the current coaches and players. Lincoln, then Talladega County High, got about a 20-year head start over Munford in football back in 1927. The Lions didn’t begin to play until 1946. The initial 14 games went to Lincoln 10 times with Munford winning three and one ending in a scoreless tie. From 1959-68, Munford fashioned 10 straight wins. The rivalry was at its best when Alan Brooks coached Lincoln and Tony Motley headed Munford. Their tenures overlapped from 1977 through 1993. The first 12 games saw each team win six times before Motley’s Lions won for him five straight outings. Wins were balanced again for several years until Keith Howard coached Lincoln to five straight victories until his untimely death at the start of the 2009 season.
Anniston at Alexandria: In the beginning, 1926, this game was less a rivalry than an opportunity for Anniston to pick up a win against an opponent with half as many players on its roster. Anniston won the first game 3-0. Over the next 23 years, a total of 20 games were played. The Bulldogs won all 20 contests and had 16 shutouts along the way. Every game was played at Anniston. The closest game was a 12-0 win for Anniston in 1931, and Anniston won by identical 58-0 scores in 1947 and 1948. All that changed in 1950 when Lou Scales’ third group of Valley Cubs scored a 20-12 upset and became the first team in Calhoun County to defeat the Bulldogs since 1920. From 1957-2003, the Bulldogs and the Valley Cubs tangled just twice with Anniston taking a 14-6 verdict in 1965 and Alexandria returning the favor 19-7 the following year. Since 2004, the Cubs and the Bulldogs have played eight games with each team winning four contests.