The old Southeastern Conference motto, “it just means more,” is the best way Rockdale County Athletic Director Chad Suddeth can describe the yearly meeting between the city of Conyers’ two oldest programs.
Suddeth, who has been apart of the annual festivities for the past 18 years both as a faculty member of Rockdale and Heritage, knows the series as good as anyone still currently employed by the two schools.
“I've been a part of this rivalry since 2000 when I was an assistant football Coach for Rockdale under head coach Matt Fligg,” Suddeth said. “I've been at every Rockdale vs Heritage football game since then, either as a coach, a spectator, or as an athletic director.”
As the two schools gear up for their Week 4 meeting Friday night at Rockdale, Suddeth knows what kind of vibe will permeate through the halls of both schools, as well as the surrounding community.
“There is definitely a different vibe in the air on campus the week leading up to the game,” Suddeth said. “Everyone knows it's a big game, so everyone wants to perform at their best. It's always a capacity crowd, standing room only. So it's definitely the best football atmosphere that we'll have all year long. Conyers shuts down on Friday night when Rockdale plays Heritage, just like many small towns do.”
As for the two head coaches gearing up for Friday night’s 40th meeting all-time dating back to 1978, both are relatively new to the spectacle in the grand scheme of things.
Rockdale County head coach Jamie Baldwin, who coached twice against Heritage as the team’s defensive coordinator prior to last season as the head coach, will face off against Corey Johnson of Heritage, who will take the sidelines for the fourth time as the Patriots’ frontman.
Baldwin has never defeated Heritage while Johnson is 3-0.
“We look forward to a big match with Heritage every year,” Baldwin said. “Since I’ve been here, the games have always been exciting and competitive. Playing against coach Johnson, we both know that our guys play a little higher level when we play each other, so there’s no telling what we can expect come Friday.”
Dating back to 2014, the winner between Rockdale and Heritage has needed to score at least 27 points to secure a victory. In their past six meetings, four have resulted in one-score victories for the winning sideline including last season’s 30-28 thriller.
While neither the Bulldogs nor Patriots have scored more than three touchdowns in a game thus far this season, it hasn’t been for a lack of trying on Rockdale’s sideline. With opportunities to reach the 4-touchdown mark in each of their first three games, penalties have halted their chances.
“We definitely have to clean up the penalties,” Baldwin said. “We had 12 penalties for 70 yards (last Friday) and that stalled a lot of our drives on offense and put some momentum back into Discovery’s hands. I can understand having 2-3 penalties, but 12 in one game is unacceptable.”
A stout Heritage defensive attack could also pose Baldwin and his offense problems on Friday.
“They get after it,” Baldwin said. “They play faced-paced type of defense. They have a lot of skill guys that get after it, so I’m kind of looking at whether or not we’re going to be able to move the ball like we necessarily would against the last three teams that we’ve played.
The Bulldogs lack of offense at times has not stunted their victories. The Bulldogs will enter the matchup with a perfect 3-0 record, their best start to a season since 2014. A victory over the Patriots on Friday would give the Bulldogs their first 4-0 start to a season since 1987.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster for the program, for the student body and for the community that supports Rockdale County High School,” Baldwin said. “I tell my guys all the time to not get caught up in the hype or records. We’re going to try and stay as focused as possible on the task at hand.”
After shutting out Salem 18-0 in Week 1, the Patriots were shutout themselves by No. 1 ranked Class A-private Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy, 42-0 last Friday night.
Johnson’s main takeaway from their shoutout loss last Friday night was keyed in on the mistakes that they made.
“We just have to take care of ourselves,” Johnson said. “As well as we felt like we played on Friday, we had a lot of little mistakes that we made. If we can eliminate some of those little mistakes, they won’t turn into big plays for the opposing team. That’s what we’re taking away from it.”
For Rockdale County, Baldwin attributed the Bulldogs’ recent losses to the Patriots, who have defeated the Bulldogs in each of the past three seasons, to a lack of focus.
“I think we’ve matched up against them well for the last 3-4 years,” Baldwin said. “We just haven’t seized the opportunities when they come. I remember last season we let the opportunity slip our out of our hand because we didn’t stay focused.”
The Bulldogs will turn to a mix of youth and experience on its offense against the Patriots. First-year starting quarterback Chandler Peters will make his first start against the Patriots, as will starting running back Connor Mack.
Coupled with an experienced wide receiving corps in Darren and Darnell Stephens and Noah McGlockling, Johnson expects the Bulldogs’ offense to look similar to that of ELCA’s last Friday night.
“You’re looking at pretty much the same offense as far as playmakers go from the team that we played last week,” Johnson said. “The running back we faced last week and the one we’re going up against this week are very similar guys. They’re home run hitters and can take it the distance. They don’t need much space. Last week, (ELCA) had one major target that they threw to while as Rockdale as a few guys that they can throw the ball to.”
For the Patriots, only wide receiver Caleb Clements and running back Daniel Grant return with significant snaps against the Bulldogs last season.
With the successes Baldwin has seen out of his team through three games this season, the second-year head coach expects his team to put up a good fight against the Patriots.
“I questioned their mental focus going into this season, before we ever played Mundy’s Mill in the scrimmage game,” Baldwin said. “I wanted to know if we could play four quarters competitively. We didn’t do that well last season, or even since I’ve been here. For the most part, I’ve seen the competitiveness and the mental focus for the last three games. I’m pleased with the way that the guys continue to strive.”
As for Heritage, in order to make it four wins in a row against Rockdale County, a few things will need to occur in the eyes of Johnson.
“We have to be fundamentally sound,” Johnson said. “We’re going to have to win the turnover battle. We have to create turnovers and not turn the ball over. Special teams is going to be big. When we get into situations where we have to put the ball, we have to get the ball off. We can’t allow any big plays. We have to make them work the field for anything that they get. I think those are going to be the keys.”