RINGGOLD, Ga. (WRCB) -- The annual cross-county rivalry between Ringgold and Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe will mean a little more in 2011.
The Tigers and Warriors will open the season against each other Friday night at Finley Stadium in the Friday Night Football Game of the Week, marking the first game for both sides since April's devastating tornadoes.
Ringgold will serve as the host team. The Tigers will play all their home games at Finley because their stadium was destroyed in the storms.
"It feels like forever ago since we've played our last game," said Ringgold quarterback Slade Dale. "With everything that happened we're now so close, but Friday still seems so far away."
The program, which was without head coach Robert Akins for much of the week because of a death in the family, has done its best to stay focused while bouncing around temporary practice sites at Heritage and Northwest Whitfield.
"The traveling in general, packing all our gear up to start and end each day, moving around, it gets difficult," said senior defensive back Adam Ray. "But I think it brought us closer together because we're doing it together.
"It's just facing adversity like we have been doing."
The two sides put aside a storied and bitter rivalry in April, banding together with Heritage to push through the adversity as one community.
LFO High even served as a shelter in the days immediately following the storms, housing many folks who bleed Blue and White instead of Red and White.
"I think given this year, it's exciting that we open against each other, and then we play Heritage right after that," said LFO coach Todd Windham. "I guess given the circumstances of what happened in the county, it's a good thing that we're all together and involved in these games to start the year.
While so much has changed in the lives of players, fans and coaches off the field, plenty has changed on it as well for both teams.
Ringgold scrapped its pass-oriented spread offense over the summer, instead turning the reigns over to a sophomore signal caller in Dale and a stable of talented running backs.
"We've been running the same offense for about four years, and a lot of the kids have run it for years, so they've had to learn a lot of new things this year," said Ringgold offensive coordinator David Gann. "From practicing at Heritage to practicing at Tunnell Hill to installing a new offense, they're learning a lot of different things and doing it at a lot of different places.
"It's been tough on the kids, but they've responded really well."
While the schemes may seem similar at LFO, Windham feels like his team is completely different... in a good way.
The Warriors went 0-10 a year ago, making for a seemingly endless offseason.
"Since our last game and throughout all our offseason workouts, it's been a totally different ballgame," said two-way lineman Kelly Payne. "Every day we've been putting that chip from last year on our shoulder."
Windham believes three-a-day practices at a week-long camp at Jacksonvile State this summer transformed his team's mindset. His Warriors are excited about a new beginning, but they're still not completely erasing last season's struggles from their memories.
"People ask if last season is one you want to forget about, and the answer is yes and no," Windham said. "You want to obviously forget about the way you performed and you want to play better, but you have to remember it because that is your inspiration."
The grief, stress and continuous rebuilding will take a brief break this Friday night. One more step towards a full return to normalcy for a community brought closer together by a catastrophic experience, yet still divided for at least one night by school colors and battle cries.
"It's kind of like playing against your brother now. You always want to beat your brother. You love him, but you still want to beat him," joked Gann. "We appreciated what they've done at LFO, but on Friday they'll be trying to beat us and we'll be trying to beat them."
Added LFO's Payne: "Everything that happened with the community was bad and it brought us together, but there's no mercy on the football field."