STATESBORO—The high school football season will start a little earlier than usual for Effingham County and South Effingham — and neither team can wait for it to happen.
The Mustangs will kick off the fifth Erk Russell Football Classic on Aug. 19 with a 5 p.m. game against Tift County at Georgia Southern University’s Paulson Stadium, and the Rebels will follow with their matchup against Coffee.
“It is super cool for our whole community, said ECHS defensive coordinator Mike Ward, who played at Georgia Southern. “We are beyond excited. If you can’t get excited for this game, something is wrong with you.
The Mustangs also are eager about taking the field at Paulson Stadium, and South Effingham head coach Donnie Revell brought along band director Sean McBride.
It wasn’t hard to sell the idea to be able to play in this kind of venue, for the team, the band, the cheerleaders, Revell said. “It’s exciting for them. It’s a great opportunity for the county and our whole school, just to be able to experience that kind of opportunity.
The Mustangs went 7-4 a year ago, losing to Houston County in the first round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs. But South Effingham lost 23 seniors to graduation, including the entire starting offensive backfield. Revell welcomes back the front seven on defense, led by Makenzy Newbill.
“Our coaches are in the process of putting the pieces back together, Revell said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.
Tift County was 5-5 in 2015, but the Mustangs know the Blue Devils are traditionally one of the state’s best programs.
“It’s a huge challenge for our players, Revell said. “They understand what it’s going to take to compete and to be successful.
The Rebels were 7-3 last season and went 0-2 against the Trojans in their two Region 3-AAAAA meetings.
“It’s tough. They do a good job, Ward said of the Trojans. “Our kids are really excited to play a perennial powerhouse like Coffee.
While South Effingham has never played Tift, the Rebels at least are quite familiar with the Trojans.
“It’s definitely a challenge, Ward said.
But the former star Eagles linebacker also praised his boss, Rebels head coach Buddy Holder, and what he’s done with the Rebels program.
“Coach Holder has done a great job, he said. “He’s a great coach. It’s an honor to coach with him.
When Ward played, the stadium didn’t have seating for more than 20,000 and there was no sprint turf on the field. The addition of the new playing surface has allowed the Erk Russell Classic organizers to expand the event from two games to four.
“Just the upgrades they’ve done here, the history behind the school, the new turf, our kids have been working extra hard with a little more motivation, Ward said.
There is a strong connection between both Effingham County and South Effingham and Georgia Southern University. Ward pointed out that three members of the current Rebels football staff played at GSU and most of the teachers there graduated from Georgia Southern. Former assistant coach Nate Hayes, now an assistant principal at ECHS, played under Russell, the legendary late Eagles mentor.
“We’ve been so stoked to be here, Ward said.
Though it’s not a home game, the coaches and players expect to have a significant home field advantage with their own crowds making the short drive to Paulson Stadium.
“We’re very excited, Newbill said. “I’ve been watching Georgia Southern for years. A lot of our friends and families will be here.
Added Rebels senior defensive end Dalton Harris: “It’s a big game atmosphere and everyone is pumped up for it. We definitely expect a big turnout. Who wouldn’t want to play here?