THE TITLE CARD: Defending state champions Fitzgerald, Madison County square off at inaugural Border Classic

·6 min read

Sep. 5—It's finally here. The week of the inaugural Georgia vs. Florida Border Classic.

Fourteen teams will play seven games at Glynn County Stadium from Thursday through Saturday, and though contests featuring local programs McIntosh County Academy, Glynn Academy and Brunswick High are sure to be the main attractions, there is another game fans should circle on the event's schedule.

The early game Saturday at 1 p.m. is set to pit a couple of No. 1-ranked programs coming off state championships against each other in a small school showdown between the Fitzgerald Purple Hurricanes and the Madison County Cowboys.

Both programs have been some of the best in their respective states over more than a decade with Georgia representative Fitzgerald owning a 127-35-1 record since 2010 and its Florida counterpart Madison County at 136-26 over the same span.

Both are also clearly still at the zenith of their powers, the Purple Hurricanes having just won the GHSA Class 2A state title and the Cowboys capturing the FHSAA's Class 1A crown.

Starting off their title defenses with a bang, Fitzgerald (3-0) and Madison County (2-0) each enter the matchup undefeated while scoring more than 37 points per game, but Saturday's contest represents a true test for each program.

"I think there's a lot of good about it," Fitzgerald head coach Tucker Pruitt said at the press conference announcing the classic in April. "It's a Saturday game, kind of gets you off your schedule, out of your routine. Our state championship game is a Friday game at 1 p.m., I think, so we're going to try to treat it like a state championship game. We're probably going to come up the night before and stay, kind of try to gain some experience from that, replicate what would be a state championship game."

"Obviously Madison County as an opponent will be a good measuring stick. They've won three of the last four state championships in their classification, and that's hard to do on a video game, much less in real life. They've got a great program; we're looking forward to competing with them and seeing how we measure up."

There will be one distinct difference differentiating the Cowboys at Glynn County Stadium from those of past glory, the absence of longtime head coach Mike Coe from the sidelines.

Coe won four state championships in 12 years at Madison County before leaving to take over as head coach at Coffee County, who plays St. Augustine in the following game.

The program pegged former Cowboy Price Harris to return to his alma mater to try to keep the ball rolling, and a victory over a top-ranked defending champion would make for a nice feather in his cap to start his stint at Madison County.

"Really excited about the opportunity to play Tucker," Harris said. "He does such a great job there at Fitzgerald, and they've done it for years, so that will be a great opportunity for us to see where we're at."

The Purple Hurricanes have found success utilizing the wing-T under Pruitt, averaging more than 370 total yards behind an offensive line led by preseason all-state selection Xavier Walker, but last week they showed they can put the ball in the air on occasion as quarterback Sultan Cooper had a standout performance, going 13-of-18 for 157 yards in a come-from-behind win over Northeast Macon. Cooper was just 20-of-40 passing all last season.

On defense, Fitzgerald is trying to replace the loss of linebacker EJ Lightsey, who signed with Georgia in February, but preseason all-state selection Daniel James and FB/OLB Sylon James have helped fill the hole.

Madison County has instilled more verticality and complexity to its passing offense with quarterback Jamie "Buck" Hampton Jr. since Harris' arrival, and playing behind some big offensive linemen garnering college looks, the Cowboys should be able to put up some points of their own.

But Madison's most highly recruited player is on the defensive side of the ball in Maryland commit Jonathan Akins, a 5-foot-11 corner rated as a 3-star prospect by the 247Sports Composite rating.

Players from both teams could walk away from the contest with even more college interest given the high-profile matchup will be aired by Jacksonville new station WJXT, News4Jax and streamed online.

"I think its phenomenal," Harris said. "Getting the opportunity to play on TV, and the exposure for the kids, is going to be huge. Playing a great opponent like Fitzgerald is always a great test. As we go forward, our goal every year is to win a state championship, so that will give us a good idea of where we are at, what we need to work on.

"Being early in the season, I think it's going to be a great matchup for both teams."

Of course, as with the rest of the games in the Georgia vs. Florida Border Classic, bragging rights will be at stake.

Madison County has regularly faced south Georgia schools such as Valdosta High, Brooks County, Colquitt County and Coffee in the past. Fitzgerald, on the other hand, has never played a Florida program in its 111-year history.

"We don't want to lose to anybody," Pruitt said. "We take our football really seriously, work at it diligently all year long. It will be a great measuring stick to kind of see how we matchup with Madison County. I think everybody knows about them, they've got a really good program, great tradition, multiple state championships, probably one of the best small schools in the country.

"We better be ready when we play them."

The Cowboys aren't backing down either in the face of a new opponent from the Peach State.

"There's always state rivalries, there's always that Georgia-Florida thing going on," Harris said. "We've got a lot of respect for them, but of course we're not going to be scared of them."

With program history and state supremacy on the line, don't be surprised if Pruitt reaches into his deep bag of tricks when Fitzgerald finds itself at an inflection point in the contest.

Pruitt pulled out a play that had the quarterback fake a handoff and toss a pass backwards over his head to a receiver in the end zone on a crucial 2-point conversion that forced overtime in its season-opening win over Irwin County last season.

"Those trick plays, one thing about them is they either work or they don't work, and I've been on both sides of them," Pruitt said. "But yeah, Madison, I hear they're really good, so I would imagine we're going to come here with a few of them and kind of try to pick our spots and see what we can do."