Zach Johnson  HIES

Wide receiver Zach Jackson (12) is among the key players for Holy Innocents.

A couple of Sandy Springs foes renew their rivalry after a two-year absence when Holy Innocents hosts Mount Vernon in a battle of local and Region 5A Private rivals at Baker Field Oct. 23.

It’s the first time that the two teams will face each other on the gridiron since 2019, when Holy Innocents scored a convincing 49-14 victory over Mount Vernon. Last year’s game was cancelled due to Covid-19 concerns.

Holy Innocents coach Todd Winter said he and his team look forward to their game with their crosstown rivals — who are only a little over three miles apart.

“It’s pretty big,” Holy Innocents coach Todd Winter said. “I liken it a little bit to the Georgia-Georgia Tech game a little bit. It’s a big, big rival. We look forward to this game every year. Unfortunately last year, we were unable to play because of Covid, so we’re excited. It’s a great atmosphere and (Mount Vernon is) a good football team, so we’re looking forward to it. Big rivalry.”

Mount Vernon coach Wayne Dabbs is equally excited about facing their Sandy Springs neighbors again on the football field.

“(Holy Innocents) is right down the road from us,” Mount Vernon coach Wayne Dabbs said. “We have a lot of the same-type families, a lot of these kids grew up together and they’re playing (recreational league) football and things like that. They all know each other pretty well. There is a good respect for the rivalry. Coach Todd Winter, their head coach, is a friend of mine and we talk pretty often. He’s one of the best coaches in the state and has done a great job ever since he stepped on campus there. They are always competitive games and it’s always a tough challenge for both teams. It’s a strong thing for our community for sure and it looks like that both teams this year are good teams and it will take a great effort for whoever ends up winning the game.”

The game features a couple of strong contenders for the 5A Private championship as well as local rivals, with Holy Innocents at 6-1 overall and 1-0 in the region and Mount Vernon at 5-2, 1-0.

It’s been another strong season for Holy Innocents, which was ranked seventh in the state in Class A Private as of Oct. 14 – with a 49-0 loss to defending Class A Private champions Prince Avenue Christian on Sept. 10 being the only blot on its otherwise impeccable record.

“Everything has gone well for us, with the exception of our week three game (against Prince Avenue Christian) – we just did not play well,” Winter said. “The team we beat in week two is the top-ranked (Class) AA football team out of South Carolina (Christ Church in a 31-0 win Sept. 3) and I think, we beat them 31-0, and our kids just didn’t ready to play (the next game) against Prince. We took them to the wire last year and it was actually the closest game any (Class) A school played against them all year. We did not play well that week and we told our kids every week, ‘Don’t forget that feeling that you had (in losing to Prince Avenue Christian). We’re just trying to get a little better each and every week. Mount Vernon is a very good football team, so we’re going to have to play a lot better than we’ve played.”

Sophomore running back Nehemiah High is the leading rusher and one of the key players for a young but well-balanced Holy Innocents team. Jacobi Murray, a 6-foot-3, 278-pound sophomore defensive end, has been a standout on defense and has already attracted the attention of Division I colleges, while sophomore wide receiver Zach Jackson has been another key element to the Golden Bears’ success.

Meanwhile, Mount Vernon has also had a successful season, bouncing back with five consecutive wins after season-opening losses to Whitefield Academy (13-0 on Aug. 20) and last year’s Class A Private state runner-up and current top-ranked team Trinity Christian (54-3 on Aug. 27).

“It’s gone well,” Dabbs said. “I think every team has battled a little bit of the trickle effect from Covid. We were all trying to figure out at the beginning of the year what our teams are made of. We lost the first two games this year to two really good football teams in Whitefield and Trinity. Trinity is probably one of the better teams in the state if not the best. With Whitefield, we had some injuries. But hats off to those guys, they’re a good football team. But we kind of regrouped, found out more about our team the last several weeks. We’ve been able to go on the road and win some tough games.”

Sophomore Johnny Gallinaro, who leads Class A Private in receiving (34 receptions, 676 yards, 5 TDs), is among a strong group of key players for the Mustangs, which also include senior quarterback Luke Barnes, senior linebackers Austin Taylor, Will Palmer and Sam Landers as well as junior running back/safety Liam O’Toole.

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