ROSSVILLE, Ga. (WRCB) -- Calhoun has established itself as a perennial state title contender in the state of Georgia over the past decade.
Last season, Ridgeland took a major step towards becoming the same.
This week the two North Georgia powers collide under the lights at Bowers and Painter Field in the Friday Night Football Game of the Week. The contest will serve as the season-opener for both teams.
"What a great matchup to test you this early in the season," said Ridgeland head coach Mark Mariakis. "Everybody likes to win, but to have this challenge right off the bat kind of sets the tone for our guys."
A team on the rise over the past few years, Ridgeland finally broke through and advanced to the Class 4A state championship game for the first time in school history. The Panthers finished state runner-up to undefeated Sandy Creek, but learned plenty in the process.
"Once you have a team get to that point, you're hungry to get back," said defensive back Dillon Peterman. "We have to follow that team, and we're hungry to do even better. You always want to raise the bar from where the team before you left it."
Unfortunately, much of the talent from that squad -- including ESPN top 100 recruit Vonn Bell and 2,000-yard rusher Darrell Bridges -- has moved on, forcing head coach Mark Mariakis to rely on a new crop of talent to keep the program on an elite level.
Peterman and fullback Noah Cooper have the biggest shoes to fill in the roles vacated by Bell and Bridges, but luckily they're already two of the team's strongest leaders.
And they certainly remember the epic season-opening showdown in Calhoun last fall, in which the Jackets scored in the final minute to escape with a 42-35 win. The Panthers wouldn't lose again until the state final.
"I remember two defenses just trying to stop two powerhouses," Peterman said. "Calhoun had a bunch of new guys on defense and we had just installed a new defense, so it was tough. It could be the same this year, I guess, but I think our defense is solid."
Calhoun also graduated most of its top talent from a Class 2A state runner-up roster, but the Jackets have never had trouble reloading while making five straight state championship game appearances.
Quarterback Taylor Lamb, who signed with Appalachian State after being named Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Georgia, is one of three Division I signees to depart. He'll be replaced by senior Fields Chapman, whose transition has been aided by the return of key playmakers in running back Alex Urbano and receiver/defensive back Tydus Curtis.
Calhoun also picked up a huge boost in speedy wideout Chandler Curtis, who transferred from Gordon Central this offseason ahead of his senior season.
"We started this series because we were both desperate for games, but it's really turned into a great rivalry," Mariakis said. "I've known (Calhoun coach) Hal Lamb for awhile and actually called him for some advice when we were getting ready for the state semifinals and finals last year.
"There's just a lot of mutual respect between our staffs and our programs."
The road back to the Georgia Dome can start on a winning note for only one of these powerful Peach State teams. Paul Shahen and Jordan Tippit will be live from Rossville with full coverage on Week 1 of Channel 3's Friday Night Football starting at 11:10 p.m. ET.
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