Spotlight: Valdosta Wildcats
Hometown: Valdosta, GA
Group: GA Class AAAAA
By Ryan Rohde
The numbers are staggering: a national record 838 wins (and counting), an 80% overall winning percentage, 23 state championships and six national titles.
This is Valdosta Wildcat football.
The backbone of the success on the field is two-fold. It starts with great tradition but also includes elite coaches who understand that tradition. Wright Bazemore began coaching at Valdosta in 1942, winning 14 state titles in three decades at the helm, all while establishing the Wildcat tradition that continues today.
Bazemore stepped down in 1971, but his successor was fired for not winning a region championship after just two seasons. That’s one example of the pressure that comes with being the head coach of the winningest team in high school football history. Bazmore then hand picked Nick Hyder to be the next head coach. Hyder died tragically in 1996, but not before cementing himself in Wildcat history by winning seven state titles.
And with great coaches comes great players. The people of Valdosta have passed the tradition of playing for the black and gold from generation to generation, which is a major reason for the team’s sustained success. The citizens fully invest themselves in high school football. The diners and coffee shops are filled with former players who have sons or grandsons on the team. The talk is all Valdosta football, present, past and future.
The southern Georgia city of 45,000 is dubbed “Winnersville” in the world of high school football, and more recently crowned as “TitleTown USA” by ESPN. With a history and tradition like Valdosta, and a penchant for spending money, it is hard not to garner comparisons on a grand scale.
Said former head coach Rick Darlington in an article by Steve Weiberg of USA Today, “I've heard us called the Yankees of high school football.”
When taking one look at Bazemore-Hyder Stadium on the campus of Valdosta High, it’s easy to see why.
This is not your ordinary high school football stadium. For instance, the new $7.5 million Sprinturf field, the reserved armchair seats for season ticket holders and the new press box are all lit by the same high caliber lights used at Daytona National Speedway.
Meanwhile, located in the southeast corner of the stadium is the “Wildcat Walk of Pride.” The brick walkway is lined with the names of Wildcat alumni and fans and leads to the “[Wildcat Museum|http://www.valdostafootball.com/facilities/museum/].”
The museum embodies all that is Valdosta football. The walls are lined with memorabilia from seasons past, in addition to countless championship trophies reminding fans what it means to be a Wildcat.
And that pride is shown on Friday nights. Bazemore-Hyder Stadium draws regularly 7,500 fans for each game, which is almost twice the amount as two-time Division II national champion Valdosta State. The seats are packed with individuals of all walks -- from infants to students and to lifelong season ticket holders.
The fans and school also understand that running a powerhouse program does not come without a price. The annual budget for the program is upwards of $300,000 and the 1,500 member booster club chips in an additional 80-90 grand.
When asked in a recent Sports Illustrated article about coming to Valdosta from his former job at Washington County, current head coach Rick Tomberlin said, “…This is a bigger stage. It's like being at the Fox Theater in Atlanta and then going to Carnegie Hall.”
With a resume like Valdosta’s, most would agree that those comparisons are spot on.
Next up: Friday, September 26 vs. Warner Robins (State PR: 67.00, Rank: 32).