Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Lindale, the Pepperell Dragons kick off the 2018 season against the Darlington Tigers at Dragon Stadium in what will be the first regular season meeting between the two programs since the 2007 season.
Both coaches feel the game will feature the excitement football fans crave, and they’re both equally concerned about their opponents.
“Anytime you play Pepperell, you know they’re going to play hard,” Darlington head coach Tommy Atha said. “They’ve always been a physical team, and that’s still true. They’ve got some good players and the skill to go along with it. They certainly pose a threat on both sides of the ball. There will be a lot of people there and a lot of excitement, and that’s what you want in a high school football game.”
The Dragons own the series lead against the Tigers with a 13-9 record dating back to 1970 and have won the last three matchups. That doesn’t quell any concerns from head coach Rich Hurst, especially with Tate Ratledge roaming the front lines.
“Darlington is Darlington,” Hurst said. “They’re always good. They’ve always got players. We’re worried about Ratledge. I don’t know that we have anyone that can block him. We just have to be more disciplined and execute. If we can execute, we’ll be just fine. They’re worrisome.”
Darlington is coming off its scrimmage against Whitefield Academy, and Atha hopes his team is ready for its first matchup against a Floyd County team since 2015. The Tigers were back-to-back Region 7-AA champs in 2014 and 2015 before moving down to Class A in 2016.
“We had a good week of practice,” Atha said. “We’re just trying to correct a lot of mistakes we made Friday and doing the little things better.”
Hurst and his team prepared with two preseason scrimmages — one against Temple and the other against Cass. He said he was pleased with how his defense is coming along, but that the offense is young and its inexperience could cause some concerns.
“Protection-wise I thought we didn’t do a very good job of protecting our quarterback,” Hurst said. “But when you’ve got three young offensive linemen that have never been in a varsity game, it’s going to be tough.”
Fans will notice Pepperell’s helmets featuring a small pink sticker with the initials J.B. on them. The stickers will be on the helmets for the duration of the season and are there for Julie Bishop, the wife of Pepperell receivers coach Justin Bishop. Julie Bishop was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year.
“She’s in a fight, and when one Dragon is in a fight, we’re all in one,” Hurst said.
“When you go through a disease like this — it’s just a nasty, nasty disease,” Justin Bishop said. “It really helps when you know you’ve got so many people behind you. This community has really come out and supported my wife and I, and it just means the world to us.”