The three components of a high school football rivalry, most agree, are proximity, tradition and longevity.
East Hamilton and Ooltewah have the proximity thing down – they are separated by seven miles, so close together they share the same zip code. East Hamilton was formed by splitting off from Ooltewah.
The rivalry, while still in its infancy – the teams played their first football game in 2011 – has the potential to grow into one Southeast Tennessee’s best.
If the schools keep producing district championship contenders that consistently achieve postseason berths, then it could be only a matter of time before the Owls and Hurricanes can check the tradition and longevity boxes off.
“I’ve never been in a situation like this before,” said Owls coach Mac Bryan, who is in his first year at Ooltewah, of the splintered schools building a rivalry so quickly. “I think that adds a lot because everybody knows everybody and the line has been drawn. It’s good for high school football. It’s good for the area.”
This geographical portion of the state has enjoyed its share of rivalries over the years – Red Bank and Soddy-Daisy, Hixson against both of those teams. McMinn County and Bradley Central played their first game in 1916.
South Pittsburg and Marion County are still going strong – they first played in 1924 and have met each year since 1955 – and the climate around that game is so intense that an assistant coach at Marion has found himself in deep trouble with law enforcement for allegedly vandalizing school property hoping to fire up the Warriors by placing the blame on someone from South Pittsburg for doing the dirty deed.
Then, there’s Baylor and McCallie, which got together in 1905 to launch that private-school rivalry that became so heated and hyped that McCallie felt too much emphasis was being placed on the game and stopped the series from 1941-70.
The Bradley Central-Cleveland series became so enormously antagonistic the two schools had to lay off for a spell before resuming the crosstown gridiron slugfest.
In Upper East Tennessee, Kingsport Dobyns-Bennett, which started its football program in 1921 and lays claim to 13 state titles, has played rival Johnson City Science Hill 91 times and the Hilltoppers have won 62 games in that series. D-B has a 62-19-1 advantage in its rivalry with Tennessee High of Bristol.
All that brings us back to the fledgling Ooltewah and East Hamilton rivalry.
East Hamilton first played a football game in 2011 and the more established Owls thumped the Hurricanes, 45-13, and won the subsequent two games by a total of five points.
Something is brewing there.
On Friday night at Ooltewah’s James N. Monroe Stadium/Jim Jarvis Field, the Owls and Hurricanes crank up the rivalry a notch or two, meeting in the second round of the Class 5A state playoffs – both teams are 9-2.
It’s one of 11 playoff games in six divisions involving area teams.
The two teams played on Sept. 20, at Ooltewah, and the Owls escaped with a 28-26 victory, getting a defensive stop in the shadow of their own end zone on the game’s final play. Ooltewah won the 2012 game, 31-28.
In September, the stadium was packed. The play on the field was outstanding. The atmosphere was electric. The game wasn’t decided until the final second ticked off the clock.
That’s a rivalry in the making.
Fans should expect nothing less on Friday.
“We’re both neighbors and we’re both in this tournament,” said East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood, who formerly was the Owls’ head coach. “We’ve had a good year and they’ve had a good year and to make it even more exciting we’ll be playing in a playoff atmosphere and that’s just phenomenal.
“I doubt there will be a bigger crowd in the state than (Friday) night at Ooltewah.”
Jarvis, the long-time athletic director who was promoted to principal earlier in the school year, cautions folks about getting carried away with exaggerated attendance estimates. The regular-season game crowd was mentioned in several publications as being between 6,000 and 7,000.
Jim Jarvis said the turnout was closer to 4,000 when the tickets were counted, giving the Owls a $20,000 gate, excluding revenue from parking – that goes to the football booster club – and concessions, which go toward band expenses.
“That 4,000 figure is pretty accurate,” Jarvis said. “Tickets were five bucks apiece and the gate was close to $20,000. People think our home stand will seat 2,000 to 3,000 people. They won’t come close to that. They won’t seat our student body when we have pep rallies down there. The actually seat about 1,300 and the visitors stands will seat about 1,000.
“There’s no way we could have seated that many people that first night or (Friday) night. Still, it was one of the largest crowds we’ve had in my 26 or 27 years at Ooltewah. It’s probably in the top three. We’ve had a couple of good playoff-game crowds.”
The Baylor-McCallie and Bradley-Cleveland games have been known to attract nearly 10,000 fans through the years, so those are the gold-standard turnouts that most rivalries are gauged by around these parts. Baylor leads that series 43-45-3 and has won six straight times. McCallie won the previous 11.
Something that might act as a deterrent for Friday’s game is the ticket price of $8 dictated by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association – that’s a 60 percent increase from regular-season prices.
And Ooltewah, despite being the host team, probably won’t make as much money as visiting East Hamilton. Neither will make as much as TSSAA, which takes 50 percent of the gross before anybody else gets a check.
East Hamilton and Ooltewah will split the other 50 percent.
“Ted will make more money than we will,” Jarvis said, “because all he has to pay is expenses, and that’s just a seven-mile bus trip in the grand scheme of things.”
Gatewood said the 2012 crowd that turned out to watch the Owls and Hurricanes at East Hamilton’s home field was “a little smaller” than this year’s regular-season crowd at Ooltewah.
The future of the young rivalry depends on a couple factors, primarily both teams have to keep winning and games in the series need to stay competitive over the long haul.
In short, on-field success stokes a rivalry and that, in turn, keeps the turnstiles spinning.
Just look at the St. Xavier-Trinity series in Louisville, Ky.
Those schools in Stark County have played since 1894 and The Sporting News, plus a few more publications, rated it the best high school football rivalry in the country a few years ago. The two all-male schools, each with an enrollment of about 1,400 students, dominated Kentucky prep football.
Trinity has won 15 state championships, St. Xavier has 13 and the two teams have shared four state titles, three by Trinity. The annual game dominates the gridiron landscape and Catholic social calendars.
“There are hardly any Catholic weddings in Louisville that weekend,” Mike Littell, a St. Xavier alumnus, told USA TODAY.
Just about everybody turns out.
The games have drawn more than 1 million fans and the top four crowds were 37,500 in 2004, 37,252 in 1998, 36,500 (2001) and 35,800 (2003).
Nobody at Ooltewah and East Hamilton are saying the 3-year-old rivalry between the two schools is destined to become Tennessee’s answer to Trinity and St. Xavier, but the future looks good for the Owls and Hurricanes.
The one ingredient already in the hopper is the proximity of the two Hamilton County Schools. Look at what has happened with the Massillon Washington-Canton McKinley rivalry in Ohio, two other schools separated by seven miles.
It all began in 1894 and the two schools have met 121 times, always on Saturday afternoon on the final weekend of the regular season.
“You have to maintain being competitive and win some games,” Gatewood said of preserving the rivalry. “That will dictate things. Let’s be honest, we have to experience some success to make it a good rivalry. The last two games were great ones.
“We’ve got some things going for us, and I mean both schools. Our school was separated off them. The kids grew up playing in the same leagues. They’re friends, they keep in touch. It’s a great community up there and they love their football. The East Brainerd community loves football here and that makes it exciting.”
Bryan, who left UT-Martin as a co-offensive coordinator to replace Shannon Williams at Ooltewah, has been exposed to one game in the neighborhood series. Still, he fully grasps what’s going on between the two schools.
“The atmosphere for that first game was electric,” he said. “The fans enjoyed it. The players enjoyed it because they like playing in that kind of environment. The thing is the game was so competitive and flowed so well that it was worthy of the crowd.
“People tag some games as big games, but they need to be good games. That was a great game. This one coming up is the biggest game of the year, but it’s the playoffs and there’s no tomorrow. For the team that moves on there will be a lot at stake next week.”
Said Gatewood, “The chips are on the table and that makes it even better. It’s going to be somebody’s last ballgame. They’ve got a good football team and we think we have a good football team.”
TSSAA Second-Round Schedule
All Games Start At 7 p.m. Local Time
Cleveland 8-3 at Rhea County (10-1)
East Hamilton (9-2) at Ooltewah (9-2)
Sequoyah (9-2) at Hixson (8-3)
Knox Catholic (8-3) at Signal Mountain (8-3)
Tyner (5-6) at Upperman (11-0)
Notre Dame (8-3) at Polk County (9-2)
Silverdale Baptist (10-1) at Hampton (7-3)
Marion County (9-2) at Boyd-Buchanan (4-6)
Moore County (6-5) at South Pittsburg (9-1)
Baylor (7-4) at Montgomery Bell Academy (10-1)
McCallie (4-7) at Memphis University School (8-2)
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)