The last time Forsyth Central and North Forsyth faced off on a football field, Bulldogs coach Chris Bennett dubbed it "our playoff game."
That meeting came almost five years ago in the 2007 season finale, weeks after the Bulldogs’ and Raiders’ playoff hopes had already dried up. Pride and bragging rights were the only things on the line and Jared Zito, the Raiders head coach at the time, called the two programs’ ongoing battles "the biggest rivalry in the county."
A lot has changed since then.
Zito left North after the 2010 season and was replaced by Blair Armstrong. Some of the players from those 2007 squads are now college graduates. Forsyth County, which had only three varsity football programs competing in the Georgia High School Association at the time now has six members, creating new local rivalries in the process.
And when Central and North meet again tonight at 7:30 p.m. on the Bulldogs’ field, it won’t be as some sort of consolation prize in a lost season — it will be about an opportunity for a fresh start.
"[The rivalry] is good for the community and great for the kids, but you’ve also got to understand that it’s the first game on the schedule and as a coach, [that fact] kind of overrides the other stuff," Bulldogs coach Chris Bennett said.
"We need to not focus so much on the North rivalry as much as focus on trying to win a football game. Football is no doubt a game of emotion, but you’ve got to learn to control that and keep it in check and ... when you’re talking to 16- and 17-year-olds and you’re playing a big rival, that’s hard to do."
Both teams are eager for a new beginning after difficult 2011 seasons.
Central finished 2-8 last season and features an inexperienced, underclassman-heavy roster this year after losing 26 seniors to graduation.
North was forced to hit the restart button last season in Armstrong’s first year as head coach, finishing 1-9 behind a starting lineup loaded with sophomores.
Though the teams are similar in their youth and style of play, the sophomore blues that many of the Raiders’ players experienced last season might give them an edge against the largely untested Bulldogs.
"[Central is] good at running the football and hiding the football," Armstrong said.
"We run the Wing-T and they do some similar stuff to that with some option, so we’ll match up [similarly] as far as what we look like on each side of the ball.
"But we feel like we’ve come a long way since last year."
Central’s coach agrees.
"Watching them on film from the scrimmage, they’re much, much improved from last year," Bennett said. "The other thing is that they are big — a lot bigger than I realized.
"We’ve got some young kids that are untested and haven’t played on Friday night and they ... have a lot of kids who played last year. That’s probably my biggest concern; how are these inexperienced kids going to react when the lights come on Friday night against North Forsyth."
Bennett believes the rivalry excitement between the two teams will be present from the get-go since many of the players have competed against each other prior to varsity competition. Armstrong thinks it may take a year before the full extent of the rivalry kicks back in.
What both coaches agree on is that a Central-North game on the gridiron is ultimately good for both schools.
"From what I understand, it was a pretty heated rivalry before, so we’re kind of excited to get that back going again," Armstrong said. "I love inter-county rivalries. I think it makes for a great venue."
While North has developed a strong rivalry with West Forsyth in recent years, Bennett said Central has not found a new one of its own after spending the 2008 and 2009 seasons separated from all the other Forsyth County schools in a region with DeKalb County teams.
The Raiders might be the solution to that problem.
"I think [a rivalry] adds a lot of excitement to the schools and the community and the kids," Bennett said. "You like to have [those games], you just don’t necessarily like to have them right off the bat in [the opening week].
"For the past five years we haven’t had [a rival]. If it’s good for the school and good for the program, then maybe North can be that."
The overall series between the Raiders and Bulldogs is deadlocked 6-6, but Central has won the last two meetings.
When the teams faced off in 2007, the Bulldogs jumped out to an early 27-6 lead and barely held off a late North rally to win 27-25.
If tonight’s game features a similar level of drama, it shouldn’t take long for this rivalry to heat back up.