But the fervor over the two programs hasn’t always been at a fever pitch, and the two programs haven’t always been perennial top-10 contenders.
So, how did they get here?
“It’s a commitment on the part of both of our communities,” Walton coach Rocky Hidalgo said. “I think that, obviously, being successful in football is very important to the people at Lassiter and to the people at Walton.”
On top of a greater commitment being put in by coaches, players and the community, it also takes a little luck in order to put out truly great seasons. Last year, the Raiders finished an undefeated regular season and went to the Georgia Dome to play in the state championship before eventually falling to Grayson, while Lassiter lost to Walton in the state semifinals.
This season, Lassiter is now the higher-ranked opponent with a high-flying offense and a much improved defense. Meanwhile, Walton has been hit hard by the injury bug this season. The Raiders haven’t had the same starting five along the offensive line all season, and its two offensive standouts, Parker McLeod and Tyren Jones, have been hampered by injury.
McLeod will miss tonight’s game after suffering an injury at the end of last week’s Cherokee game. He will give way to junior Price Wilson, who earned his first varsity start against Woodstock.
Jones, who, Hidalgo said got into a car wreck on Sunday and re-injured his right wrist, was fitted for a splint Tuesday and will be evaluated before the game to see how much playing time he will get.
“It’s just been one of those years,” Hidalgo said. “(Jones) is fine. It was just a crazy thing. We very seldom have injuries. We’re going to get healthy at some point in time. We need to get some consistency. That’s what we’re looking for. We played terrible on defense early and have not played well on offense the last couple of weeks.”
But more than just luck, consistency or any other modifiers that can describe what can happen over one season, there is an entire process for building a major program. For Hidalgo, it started when he arrived as an assistant coach under Ed Dudley in 1996.
“My first year was 1996, so I’ve been there a long time,” he said. “It’s a very different program than it is now. Cobb County football was very different then. I guess with Walton, what we have seen, it took us really until 2002. It’s a long process to get to that point. From ’96 - ’02, we were kind of being competitive. About 2002, for whatever reason, we had been good long enough that the next step was to win some games in the playoffs. Then, the next step was to compete for state championships. Hopefully, we have evolved to where we can do that again.”
From Lassiter’s inception in 1982 through 2007, the program had reached the state playoffs just five times, going no further than the first round. In 2008, Chip Lindsey arrived and the Trojans, now under coach Jep Irwin, haven’t missed the postseason since.
Unlike Walton, which had a more gradual rise to prominence, Lassiter was able to put together more competitive teams within a shorter cycle. At both schools, that comes down to the talent pool on their respective campuses.
While there is always speculation about transfer students impacting the given ability of a school, Hidalgo said that outside of one prominent example in Jones, who transferred to Walton from Lassiter, that certainly hasn’t been the case.
“We don’t get a lot of transfers,” he said. “For whatever reason, we don’t get a lot of them over here transferring to play ball. When you win, those kids show up. We’ve been kind of a home-grown football program.
“When Tyren decided to come to Walton, I called his coach and AD and spoke with them directly. This guy contacted me. I’ve got nothing to do with it. I don’t speak with people about moving into our school district. There’s a probably a lot of people that want to talk about my kid going to Walton. I don’t talk to them without having that paper in their hands. If we were able to win under Ed Dudley, then doing it that way, then that’s what we’re doing under Rocky Hidalgo.”
Although Jones’ arrival on campus was a boon for Walton and schools such as Milton have made the news for bringing in high-profile transfers in its basketball program, the life of a program still remains tied to the cycle of talent within its own community.
“You get runs of talent,” Hidalgo said. “Sometimes, it goes dry. It just happens. We’ve had good runs of talent. It’s kind of gone away for a couple of years. I think you can look around and see Cherokee (County) had a good run of talent, and a lot of that talent dissipated. When they have another good run, I think they’ll be back. At Harrison, over the last few years, it’s been a product of Allatoona opening up. Once they settle in, their talent pool will increase and you’ll start to see them have some really good years. You get good classes.
“It’s not every year that you have 11 kids go to play college football. It’s not about how good your best players are. It’s about depth. You have to have a lot of good players. Last year, we had a deep pool of players and that’s what dictates how good you are going to be.”