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Winnersville U.S.A.
Geoffrey Norman
October 31, 1988
In high school football, Valdosta (Ga.) High is as good as it gets
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October 31, 1988

Winnersville U.s.a.

In high school football, Valdosta (Ga.) High is as good as it gets

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"A lot of people say that Valdosta burns players out and that's why they don't do so well in college," says Michael McMillan. "But I can tell you from experience that isn't true. A lot of Valdosta players fall off when they get to college, but that's because the game doesn't seem as important in college as it does right here."

McMillan played on Bazemore's 1966 state champs and then went to Southwest Missouri State on scholarship. "I scored my first college touchdown in Soldier Field in Chicago, and it wasn't anything close to the thrill I felt when I scored here," he says. "Nowhere close."

McMillan flies in from Portland, Ore., for one game a year. During that weekend he visits old teammates and Bazemore, and he stops by the cemetery where some former Wildcats are buried. He's a labor relations specialist, and he once asked a judge for a continuance in a hearing so he could make his annual visit home. "The judge asked me why I needed it, and I said, 'Your honor, I'm from a little town called Valdosta, Georgia....' And the judge held up his hand and said, 'You don't have to say another word.' He gave me the continuance.

"I'd give my whole college career just to play one more game in a Wildcat uniform, and that's not just me. That's anyone who ever wore that uniform. I promise you, that's true."

On the sideline, waiting for Valdosta to kick off to Camden County, the visitor thinks that maybe Frank Broyles of Arkansas and, long ago, Georgia Tech, has it right about Valdosta. Asked to explain the Wildcats' success, Broyles says, "I don't know. I've never seen anything like it anywhere in the country. It's just unexplainable."

The players from Camden County might not be able to explain it either, even as they experience it. Camden County beat two of Valdosta's toughest rivals last year and went to the south Georgia playoffs in its division. But the Wildcats are simply too strong and too well drilled. On Valdosta's first possession, a simple tackle trap is good for about 40 yards on a drive that's capped off when senior running back Isaac Ceaser goes in for a score. The Wildcat blocking is remorseless.

Ceaser is one of two big Valdosta backs; the other is James Roberts, and they both go about six feet, 215 pounds. They are both "fast enough—about 4.4 or 4.5," says Hyder, "but neither one of them relies on speed as much as power."

Tonight Ceaser and Roberts and their blocks tear apart Camden County. The running game is working on almost every down. Meanwhile a defense coached by Jack Rudolph, who played linebacker for Boston and Miami in the AFL and is the one assistant who bridges the Hyder and Bazemore regimes, is superb. Rudolph's D doesn't allow a first down until late in the first half, when the same Valdosta lineman jumps offside on consecutive plays. Rudolph, who yells hard and loud enough in practice to make some of the town Baptists uncomfortable, glares and says nothing as the player skulks past him on his way to the bench.

Just before halftime, with the score 31-0, Valdosta tries to sharpen up its passing game. Ben Hogan, the senior quarterback, is off target tonight, and Hyder wants him to get some confidence and hit a few completions. He knows that Hogan can do it; after all, Hyder has been grooming him since the sixth grade.

At halftime the visitor wanders into the locker room under the stands and mingles with the players as he waits to hear Hyder talk to them. Hyder is a deacon at the First Baptist Church of Valdosta and, according to some who have heard him, a man with a gift for preaching. But while he may make inspirational speeches, Hyder doesn't waste them. With a big halftime lead, there will be no halftime talk tonight. Instead the players try to fire themselves up by repeating over and over, "Whole new game, babe, and it's nothing to nothing. Whole new game."

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