Hammond and Heathwood carry rivalry to the title game
Today, the rivalry is moot. Today, the football teams of Hammond and Heathwood Hall have more on their minds than bragging rights.
When the two teams take the field at Charlie W. Johnson stadium for the SCISA Class 3A championship Friday, their decades long rivalry is incidental.
"The guys know who we're playing, but it's not something we talk about. It's not something we're going to focus on," Heathwood coach Rip Blackstone said.
"The rivalry game was Week 9," Hammond coach Erik Kimrey said. "This is the last game of the season, and it's not about a rivalry. This one is about a championship."
Kimrey's Skyhawks (11-1) are looking for the team's fourth consecutive title. To get it, they will have to defeat a Heathwood Hall (12-0) team that is angling for its first undefeated season and state title since 2004.
In October, the Highlanders took the 5-mile bus ride to Hammond's Edens Stadium and posted a 10-7 victory that was among the biggest in the rivalry's history. Cole Fowble kicked a last-second field goal that kept the Highlanders undefeated and snapped the Skyhawks' 15-game win streak.
The Highlanders were jubilant but respectful after their big win. "After we beat them, we knew we were going to have to see them again in the playoffs probably because they are that good," Highlanders linebacker Walker Sojourner said.
Though the outcome was not favorable, Kimrey said the atmosphere surrounding any Heathwood-Hammond match is enjoyable.
"It's healthy and very competitive and it makes it very intense here anytime we play Heathwood in anything," he said.
The good-natured rivalry is a natural outgrowth of the schools' similarity and proximity.
They call it a "cross-town rivalry" but Hammond and Heathwood's campuses are so close together they can probably smell each others' lunch.
The students are neighbors, congregants and, in some cases, relatives.
"We hang out with those guys on the weekend, we see each other all the time. We can be friendly and everything outside of school, your best friend can go to Heathwood, but when it comes down to athletics - all bets are off," Hammond senior Aaron Walters said.
When athletics director Jeff Whalen arrived at Heathwood Hall in 1987, the rivalry with Hammond was already in full swing. "It's always been the big game since I moved here. This is the first time in football that the two teams have met in the championship, so that's the biggest it has ever been."
Even with such high stakes, the Highlanders and Skyhawks make it a point to be adversaries not enemies.
"In everything, we want to win as much as they do." Hammond athletics director Andy Edgren said. "But at the end of the day, it's about these kids having a good experience. We never want our guys to look at the other end of the field and say 'we hate those guys.' "
With the chips on the line though, both teams are trying to keep from getting caught up in the emotion of the rivalry.
"Naturally there is going to be emotion there, but mentally we're trying not to overthink it," Walters said.
"You've a lot at risk, so you don't want to be too emotional, but it definitely helps with motivation," Sojourner said.
Hammond is playing with its youngest team of late, and though many of the players have been on the sidelines in their three title games, few have played in the championship.
Meanwhile, Heathwood has a strong group of seniors and has managed to remain focused through this undefeated season.
"If we beat them for the championship, that would just make the title that much sweeter," Walters said.
The feeling is mutual.