In the 2011 annual “Winnersville Classic” game, Valdosta High School snapped a
seven-year losing streak as it defeated Lowndes County High School, 21-17.
By John Gillis
In the long history of high school football, no program in the nation has won more games than Valdosta (Georgia) High School.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ (NFHS) online multimedia National High School Sports Record Book, entering the fall 2012 season the gridiron Wildcats have compiled a win-loss record of 869-205-34 since the program was established in 1913.
That 100 years of unparalleled success earns Valdosta the title of “The nation’s winningest high school football program.” Valdosta’s victory total of 869 wins is 41 victories ahead of runner-up Fort Thomas (Kentucky) Highlands High School in the national listing, and 184 wins ahead of Thomasville High School in the Georgia state victory listing. Now in its “Centennial Season,”’ Valdosta has been the model of consistency with only five losing seasons.
In addition to sheer victories, Valdosta has also amassed numerous championships. Among them are 40 regional championships, 23 Georgia High School Association (GHSA) state titles and six mythical national championships. Its crosstown rival, Lowndes County High School, has also built a strong program with five state titles to its credit. It is therefore not surprising that the community of Valdosta was given the moniker “Titletown, USA” by ESPN. With a city population of 54,518 and a metropolitan-area population of 139,558, Valdosta is located in the extreme southern part of Georgia, 15 miles north of the Florida border.
|Bazemore-Hyder Stadium in downtown Valdosta.
Valdosta High School plays its home games in Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, located in the community’s downtown area. Built in 1922, it was originally called “Cleveland Field” after Dr. A.G. Cleveland, who served as superintendent of the Valdosta City School System from 1919 to 1949.
A firm believer in physical exercise, Dr. Cleveland often cut the grass on the grounds of the old high school building, regularly rode his bicycle wherever he went and was a strong supporter of the community’s athletic teams.
The original stadium had very little grass and no seating. Wooden bleachers were first constructed on the north side of the field and eventually seating was constructed on the south side. One side of the wooden bleachers collapsed in 1941 and metal stands were constructed eight years later.
In 2004, Bazemore-Hyder Stadium underwent a major $6.5 million renovation. It included completely rebuilding the home stands; and adding new entrances, a two-story air-conditioned press box, an elevator, new restrooms and concessions.
The middle three sections of the home stands feature yellow plastic chairs with groups of black seats arranged to form two paw prints and a “V” in the center on the stands. The remainder of the home side features bench seating with backs, and the only seats without backing on the home side are the rows reserved for the Valdosta High School band. The visitors’ side also received a new small press box, bleachers, handrails and paint.
Before those renovations were made, seating capacity was 10,349. When the renovations were completed before the start of the 2004 season, the capacity swelled to 11,249, which includes 7,749 reserved seats. As part of the renovations, the natural grass field was replaced with a synthetic Sprinturf field.
In a resolution presented by the Valdosta Touchdown Club, the Board of Education officially named the stadium Bazemore-Hyder Stadium on September 9, 1996. Coaches Wright Bazemore (1941-42, 1946-71) and Nick Hyder (1974-95) combined for 50 years of service to the Valdosta High School football program.
Bazemore, who compiled a career record of 265-51-7 (83.1 winning percentage), was a 1988 inductee into the NFHS’ National High School Hall of Fame. Hyder’s record at Valdosta was 249-36-2 (87.1 percent), and combined with his coaching stint at Rome (Georgia) West Rome High School, his overall mark was 302-48-5 (85.9 percent).
Valdosta’s current head coach is Rance Gillespie, who is now in his third season with the Wildcats. In his first season in 2010, he led the squad to an 11-2 record and to the GHSA state quarterfinals. The following season, Gillespie coached Valdosta to an 8-3 mark and to its first 1-AAAAA Region title since 2003. In recognition of his accomplishments last season, he was named 2011 1-AAAAA Region Coach of the Year.
For Gillespie, following in the footsteps of Bazemore and Hyder and to be part of this legendary program is indeed something special.
“They [Bazemore and Hyder] were both very gifted and talented coaches,” Gillespie said. “From a program standpoint, they set the bar very high and that’s what we want to get back to.
“Since I was knee-high and able to understand what high school football is, I‘ve known that Valdosta has always been the pinnacle of high school football. To be the leader of that program is quite humbling, especially with this year’s 100-year anniversary.
“We’re a young football team this year. On defense, we lost some players from last year’s squad and we’re growing on that side of the football each game. We have five guys up front who are playing well.
“The offense hasn’t hit full stride yet, but it’s one of those deals where we’re improving each and every week. We’re running the ball better. We’ve got two running backs who rotated last year as sophomores and are both back as juniors.”
As with any other high school sport, it certainly helps to have good talent on your football team. That, coupled with the great tradition surrounding the program, has proven to be the recipe for success for Valdosta High School football.
“There have been some good players come through here – that’s where you’ve got to start. We’ve had unbelievable football talent step through these halls,” Gillespie said. “The Valdosta football program is important to this community, to this school and to every kid growing up here. Those players are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to make a good football team. Once you get that tradition rolling, it’s hard to stop. We’re getting closer to getting back to where we were.”
Aptly named “Death Valley,” Bazemore-Hyder Stadium can definitely be a daunting and intimidating place for opposing teams to venture into. Adding to that is the longstanding tradition in which the Wildcats players bang their helmets on the ceiling of the tin tunnel they run through to enter the field.
“There is clearly a home field advantage for us there,” Gillespie said. “Absolutely, we have a great fan base and those fans love football. They’re going to show up and watch us play. Just the mystique of the stadium and having 100 kids banging on that tin going through that tunnel as they enter the field is a huge advantage for us.”
Providing support for the Valdosta football program is its 1,500-member booster organization, the Touchdown Club. As part of the 2004 renovation of Bazemore-Hyder Stadium, a museum dedicated to the storied Valdosta High School football program was built. Operated by the Touchdown Club, it contains memorabilia, trophies, jerseys, jackets, shirts, helmets, among other items. It is operated by the Touchdown Club and is open during home games. Next to the museum is the memorial courtyard containing personalized bricks including the names of past Wildcat players, as well as monuments to former coaches Bazemore and Hyder and former superintendent A.G. Cleveland. In 2011, the Valdosta City Schools System Board of Education renamed the Wildcat museum the David S. Waller Sr. Valdosta Museum. Waller, who played football for Bazemore and was president of the Valdosta Touchdown Club three times, has been involved with the school system for more than 68 years.
Perhaps the biggest game of any given season for Valdosta is its annual “Winnersville Classic” showdown with rival Lowndes County High School. Since 1968, the Wildcats’ record against Lowndes County is 33-16, and they have outscored the Vikings by an average score of 20.9 to 10.1 points per game. After losing seven consecutive games to Lowndes in that series, Valdosta put together a dramatic come-from-behind 21-17 victory in 2011.
The Valdosta High School football program possesses a certain mystique to it ‑ one that might only be fully understood and appreciated by its local faithful. One such diehard Wildcat is Jennifer Steedley, director of public relations for the Valdosta City Schools who started kindergarten in the school district’s S.L. Mason Elementary.
“Our football team is like no other,” Steedley said. “When you have a history of excellence, it is hard to remember anything else. It amazes me that no matter where I go, when I tell them I am from Valdosta (and we get past the fact this it is not the place where the onions are grown ‑ that is ‘Vidalia’) they all say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard about your football team!’ To me that is simply amazing, because this isn’t Division I college ball or a professional league ‑ this is high school and they know about us. It is such a storied program. It’s neat to hear the older Touchdown Club members sit around and talk about games from 30 or 40 years ago and recite plays and scores like it was last week. I can’t explain why it is what it is, but it is truly the stuff legends are made of.
“I think last year’s Winnersville Classic (between Valdosta High School and Lowndes County High School) has to go down as one of the greatest comebacks of all time. The game is one of the biggest rivalries in the state and I would venture to say maybe even this side of the U.S. We were down by 10 points with just 1:14 to go, I was in the stadium with my husband and three kids, and my back was killing me. So, like fair-weather fans, we started the walk to the car. About halfway to the car, we could hear the crowd going wild, people were riding by yelling ‘The Cats have the ball, the Cats have the ball!’ We had no clue what was going on. By the time we got to the car, all we could make out on the radio was ‘Cats win!’
“I love my job because I believe in our school system. My entire family grew up through the Valdosta City Schools, and most of the men played for the Valdosta Wildcats. It is an honor and a privilege for me to get to work for the organization that has provided so much for my family and continues to provide for my own children and immediate family.”
Shown above is the 2012 Valdosta High School football team.
John Gillis is the associate director of publications and communications of the NFHS. If you have any comments or articles ideas, please forward them to Gillis at email@example.com
The Valdosta High School football program trophy case (above) is in the David S. Waller Sr. Wildcat Museum, which is located in Bazemore-Hyder Stadium.