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February 27, 2012
Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.
College recruiters headed down I-75 in South Georgia to visit talent-rich Valdosta (Ga.) High or Valdosta (Ga.) Lowndes used to only have one reason to get off at Exit 22:
The Smok'n Pig BBQ restaurant.
It's the type of place you come for the food (gotta try the brisket and the Brunswick Stew) and leave with a T-shirt.
Nowadays, however, there's another reason: Hahira (Ga.) Valwood School, an upstart private school showing it has the talent - and the gumption - to challenge its famous neighbors for victories and scholarships.
"We have a plan in place," Valwood coach Brannon Tidwell said. "And a lot of good things are happening here."
The small private school with an enrollment of roughly 400 - and that's K-12 - is on a roll.
Tidwell, entering his fourth year with the football program, feels the school is ready to compete with the more established powers in the region.
"Our first year we wanted to win one game," he said. "The second year we wanted to win nine. Last year we wanted to win our Region and now, this year, we want to win the state title."
Tidwell, who came to the school from Florida, is still stunned his team won that single game his first year. But he said he has not been surprised with the progression of the program - even though many others have been.
"I didn't get it at first," he said. "Everyone said you couldn't win here, you couldn't build what I wanted to build at a private school in South Georgia, or anywhere in Georgia really, because they don't view private school football as being as good.
"But from where I am from, private school football is played at the highest level."
His time in Jacksonville put him in close proximity to one of the most successful small, private schools in the country, Jacksonville (Fla.) The Bolles School.
"Bolles was the school in Jacksonville," he said. "I didn't see any reason why we couldn't do what they have done."
Bolles has won 10 state championships in Florida since 1986 and had two other runner-up finishes in that time span. Dating back to 1975, the school has won 30 District titles.
In addition, it has had numerous players move on to play college football as well as professionally.
Valwood hopes that this senior class will write the first page in a similar history book.
"We had never had a player with a Division I offer from Valwood," Tidwell said. "So we are excited right now."
"When Aulden went to Auburn and he got that offer, when Gene Chizik offers someone, it is big for (Aulden) and for the whole school," Tidwell said. "Then South Carolina called and offered; then Mississippi State; then Ole Miss. Just the other day, Miami did, too.
"Rashad's first offer was from Louisville. He was hurt last year, but he is so talented there are more schools that are going to come after him."
The rise of the program can be closely tied to those players, even if they are surprised by it themselves.
"I didn't think any of this was possible," Bynum said. "I didn't think I would have a chance to play college football until my sophomore year when coach really pushed me. He told me I could do it if I was ready to put in the work."
A growth spurt helped, too. Bynum went from 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds entering his freshman year to a stunning 6-5, 270 as a junior. But Bynum understands that there are big kids everywhere - including Valwood.
As a player that has been in the Valwood family since pre-K, he has seen some of them walk the hallways.
"We have had guys that played here that were big and strong, but they didn't get the chances we are," he said. "You know, I remember their names and knew who they were. So it is really cool to think that kids will remember who I am."
It isn't just the kids at the school who are finding about these players.
Valwood has become the talk of the town.
"It's February and the local sports radio is talking high school football," Tidwell said. "I think that says a lot about the passion of this community for the sport but also about just how far we have come in a short period of time."
It is that awareness that fuels Mathis.
"Everyone here knows everybody," he said. "It feels good that the young kids look up to you. They notice you play football but they also notice everything else."
Mathis was originally districted to play at Valdosta, but he came to Valwood as a freshman instead.
"Having coach working just as hard as we are working makes me feel good about my future and it should make other kids feel good about theirs, too."
Tidwell said that interest in attending the school is on the rise, more calls are coming in and applications are up.
He also said that attendance at practice is expected to be up as well.
"We have a great group of kids," he said. "And that means there is probably going to be a group of coaches here to look at them."
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