RINGGOLD, Ga. (WRCB) -- The return of football for one school will offer a fresh start for another when Ringgold hosts longtime rival Dalton in the Channel 3 Friday Night Football Game of the Week.
The game will be the lone local matchup in the state of Georgia after Tigers' coach Robert Akins petitioned the GHSA to play the contest on zero week in the Peach State. The move assures an electric environment for the first post-tornado game at the newly-rebuilt Don Patterson Field, which will be rededicated to the legendary coach prior to the 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff.
"It's going to be a really special night," said head coach Robert Akins, whose team played all its home games at UTC's Finley Stadium in 2011. "After the tornado and with us returning to this field, we thought what better way to open than with a quality team like Dalton.
"We're going to have Coach Patterson here for the pregame ceremony, and we'll have some special things planned with him. I can't wait to meet him. I've heard stories about him, but I've never had a chance to meet him."
But it won't just be a big night for the homestanding Tigers.
Matt Land's Catamounts are just as eager to open the season with hopes of wiping away the memory of the school's most disappointing season in decades.
Dalton was forced to forfeit four wins after the GHSA ruled linebacker Corey Smith ineligible, leaving the Catamounts with a final official record of 4-7 for their first losing record in 52 years.
"I'll be playing with a chip on my shoulder, for sure," said senior defensive back and wide receiver Ethan Fromm. "Numbers are just numbers, but seeing how the situation really affected my teammates was the hardest part. I just want to go out and play as hard as I can for those seniors who graduated and didn't get another shot this year."
There will no doubt be enough emotion on both sidelines, now both coaches simply hope their teams are ready to play. Both teams had to start practice the same date as the rest of the state despite their early opener, leaving them with one less week of preparation before their first game.
"It's nice to be the only horse and pony show in town, and we've taken it as a challenge," Land said. "It's been a great offseason motivational tool to add a little urgency to the preseason, knowing that we would be losing so many practice.
"When you pair that with the new heat policy and acclimation period, we probably lost about nine practices because we couldn't do back-to-back two-a-days at our camp trip. We knew we had to make that up somewhere, and the guys really worked their butts off and we found those nine practices."
Truly, though, the amount of preparation matters little to Ringgold's players and fans.
There's still some concrete work left to finish, a few memorial benches left to install and a maintenance building yet to be completed, but nothing that will stop high school football from returning to campus.
The community has weathered more than its fair share of adversity since last April's devastating storms, and the buzzing banks of Friday night lights on the Tigers' home field will be a welcomed site.
"This is THE game around here, man," said Ringgold quarterback Slade Dale. "We just can't wait for it to get here. There's going to be a bunch of people here supporting us, and it's going to be a great way to start our season."
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