You could not have picked two better high school football programs, two better coaches, two better fan bases or two better small Georgia towns to represent the state in the Class AAA championship game.
Calhoun and Peach County will play at 1 p.m. Friday for the AAA state title and, in recent years, the fans have gotten used to the trip to Atlanta. The two towns have experienced a combined six state titles, with four coming in the past 11 years.
It is crucial to look into the history of the two towns to get a better idea of what you’ll see on the field Friday.
The city of Calhoun, which was named after Senator John C. Calhoun in 1850, is nestled alongside the Oostanaula River in Northwest Georgia and is the county seat of Gordon County. The city has 16,445 residents and is at the center of a huge textile industry. A product of railroad expansion, the mills are a huge part of Calhoun’s fabric, pun-intended. By 1907, the Echota Cotton Mills were built, and the industry has not stopped growing, shaping the community and its residents, and more than likely, one or more of the players on the field.
Fort Valley, which was named the seat of Peach County in 1924, was founded in 1820 at the intersection of two early Indian trails. About 90 miles south of Atlanta, the city is located where U.S. Highway 341 and Georgia Highways 96 and 49 meet. Like Calhoun, the railroad played a key role in the town’s, and at one point, Fort Valley had enough passenger and freight travel to support two large hotels, the Winona and the Bassett. The Winona was dismantled in the 1960s and the Bassett burned down in 2006.
In 1924, sections of Macon and Houston counties were set aside to create a new county, Peach. The development of the Elberta peach, coupled with the rail access, allowed Fort Valley to grow as an agricultural hub. In 1925, the Atlantic Ice and Coal Co. built a new million-dollar ice plant, which produced 50,000 tons of ice to cool 17,200 rail cars filled with peaches. At the time, it was the largest ice plant in the world. Since then, Fort Valley and Peach County have developed into a proud community, like Calhoun, full of people who work hard for what they have. The population, as of 2016, is 8,643, or about half that of Calhoun.
Back to football.
Calhoun won state titles in 1952, 2011 and 2014, while Peach County High School, which was birthed from Fort Valley High and H.A. Hunt High in 1970, saw dominance throughout the mid-2000’s, when it won titles in 2005, 2006 and 2009.
Both teams enter with 13-1 records. Calhoun’s only loss came against Class AAAA and then No. 1-ranked Cartersville. Peach lost on a last-second field goal to Class AAAAA Warner Robins, which will play, ironically, for the state title at 4:30 p.m., following the 1 p.m.Peach-Calhoun game.
Both programs are the centerpieces of their communities. Like the pros, their players are referred to by first names. “Did you see that catch Kearis made? And how ’bout that hit from ‘Quez?” In both towns on Friday nights, you can hear the rumble from the stands, the game announcers and the halftime shows all across the communities.
And the two fan bases travel as good, or better, than any programs in the state, regardless of classification.
“I know the GHSA was probably glad that our two teams won,” Calhoun coach Hal Lamb laughed. “Because we are going to bring a lot of people. I know Peach is going to bring a lot of people, and we are going to bring a lot of people. … It’s kind of wild. This is an exciting week for everyone here at Calhoun, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of talk everywhere you go about going to the Benz Stadium and playing for a state championship. So, it’s wild here, just like it is in Fort Valley, I’m sure.”
In the only meeting between the programs, Peach County lost 20-14 in overtime Nov. 20, 2015. Peach County coach Chad Campbell remembers the atmosphere in Calhoun. It felt like home.
“It’s going to be very similar to our fan base,” he said. “We went up there a couple of years ,and it was a great game, an old-time game. They had just great fan support, and we do, too.”
Perhaps some of that has to do with consistency. Lamb has been at Calhoun since 1999. Campbell has been at Peach for 25 years as an assistant, and since 2007, as a head coach.
Both have been around long enough to know that the game will be decided by one factor.
“Everyone is good when you get to the final eight, but when it boils down to the top two its all about who’s gonna mess it up,” Campbell said. “Who will make a mistake here and there? Who plays the best? And when you have two evenly matched teams, that’s what’s going to happen.”