The high school football season kicked off last Thursday, but for many local football fans, their season will kick off this Friday. That’s when the Thomas Dale Knights and the L.C. Bird Skyhawks will face off in the 38th rendition of the “Battle of Chester.”
“You live for this game in Chester,” said Thomas Dale head coach Kevin Tucker. “You want to play in it, you go to see it.”
As far as rivalry goes, it could hardly get any better. The game, voted as one of the biggest rivalries in the nation, is also part of the Great American Rivalry series. The match-up traditionally has it all: packed stands, a rowdy student body, and the community out in full force. The two schools, separated by just six and a half miles, aren’t separated by much historically, as the overall record between the two opponents stands at 18-18-1.
“It’s always a big crowd and a hard fought game,” said Thomas Dale senior Anthony Prevost, the kicker. “It would mean a lot for the team to win this one.”
Tucker, who attended Thomas Dale and played in the game, has now been a part of Dale’s coaching staff for 11 match-ups. This year’s game will be his second as Dale’s head coach. The Knights are coming off a 5-5 season and a loss to Bird in last season’s bout; they will look to bounce back this year.
On the other side of the field are the L.C. Bird Skyhawks, regarded by many experts as one of the top teams in the Central Region this season. Bird, coming off an 11-1 season, lost key contributor cornerback/quarterback Ant Harris, but returns star running back Yahkee Johnson, who rushed for 170 yards and a touchdown in last year’s matchup that the Skyhawks won 29-3.
“It’s always a big game, but it’s just another game to me,” said Johnson. “Every game is a big game.”
Bird, headed again by head coach David Bedwell, isn’t the only team receiving praise from critics. Thomas Dale looks to be a much improved squad this season as well. Tucker will look to a wealth of depth and seniors for success in this game.
“A year of experience for these kids has been great,” said Tucker. “This offseason we dedicated ourselves to the weight room,” he continued. “Now that we’re stronger we won’t get pushed around and tired like we did last year.”
The last time Thomas Dale defeated L.C. Bird came at a most inopportune time for Bird, as the Knights were able to defeat the Skyhawks in the 2009 Regional Quarterfinals in route to Dale’s 2009 division six state championship. Dale was able to make a clutch stop on a Bird drive in the fourth quarter, and won 28-14.
To win this year, Tucker knows that limiting the run and big plays will be important with Johnson, who rushed for over 2,000 yards last season on the other side of field.
“It’s hard to stop Yahkee [Johnson], you want to try to contain him,” said Tucker. “We need to try to limit his ability to rip off big runs and play our style of football.”
The community will be out in full force this weekend, bearing their blue and maroon in support of the school they attended, or have grown to support. Players, coaches and fans alike view it as a great way to come together, to play against or see old friends.
“This has been going on for years,” said Johnson. “It brings people together to watch a great game of football.”
For the first time in the history of the rivalry, the teams will actually meet twice this season, in a home and away format. The first game, this Friday, will be played at L.C. Bird high school with a 7:30 p.m. start time. The second match-up will be played at Thomas Dale on November 4.
In other football news, Meadowbrook defeated Manchester 49-7 last Thursday night, and Matoaca was outlasted by Cosby 42-27. Meadowbrook will play at Highland Springs this Friday at 7 p.m., and Matoaca at Manchester at 7:30 p.m. For scores, and updates on game nights, check us out on Facebook.