ROCK HILL — For more than three decades one game drew Rock Hills Friday night spotlight above all others.
It was a clash of local titans, the citys only two high school football teams the Rock Hill High Bearcats vs. Northwestern High Trojans. It was a deep-rooted rivalry stoked by success on both sides.
Both won state championships. Both sent players to major colleges and the NFL.
But then South Pointe High opened and the Stallions ascended quickly while Rock Hill hit a lull.
The Stallions and Trojans battled for a state championship in 2008. They met in the semifinals the following year. They competed on national television in 2010, the same year both teams players ranked among the nations best.
As Northwestern, ranked fourth in Class AAAA, and South Pointe, ranked sixth, prepare to clash again at 7:30 tonight at District Three Stadium, a question arises: Has the Stallions-Trojans rivalry eclipsed the Trojans-Bearcats matchup?
In a community mad for high school football, it depends on whom you ask.
The answer is: Yes. No. And: Thats not a valid question.
Theres no way it eclipses the Rock Hill-Northwestern rivalry, said Bob Norwood, chairman of the Rock Hill school board who graduated from Rock Hill High then taught physical education, drivers ed and coached basketball and tennis at the school. The Rock Hill-Northwestern rivalry will always be the benchmark.
Tell that to Vinny Emanuele and Deveyon Gaines, South Pointe ninth-graders who play on the freshman football team.
Nobodys thinking about the Trojans versus the Bearcats right now, they said.
The Stallions-Trojans rivalry is crazy, Emanuele said. Its ridiculous. If we lost every game this season and won this one, that would be fine. Thats how big it is.
Alexis Loney, a Northwestern High sophomore, agreed.
At last years Northwestern-Rock Hill game, the crowd was large, Loney said. But it didnt compare with the Northwestern-South Pointe game.
The whole stadium was packed at South Pointe, she said. This is for real.
For Northwestern High Principal James Blake, the issue isnt whether one matchup overshadows another.
We have a three-way rivalry, he said. Its just a testament to the great community ... that you can have three great football teams in one city.
Rock Hill High Principal Ozzie Ahl takes a nuanced view.
Tonights game is certainly the bigger of the two this year, Ahl said. But, take a look at the history of Rock Hill vs. Northwestern. Its decades old. Theres a larger pool of alumni who come back for those games.
There are not any alumni of South Pointe that have kids at South Pointe, he said. If you talk about a historical rivalry, thats still Rock Hill vs. Northwestern.
From day one
High school football is embedded in Rock Hills DNA. From an early age, children prepare.
On a typical weekday afternoon, if you drive by an elementary school in the fall, youll see these kids practicing in pee wee leagues, South Pointe High Principal Al Leonard said.
Cross-town rivalries emerged when Northwestern opened in the early 1970s.
From day one, it was a great rivalry, said Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols, who coached Northwesterns first football team.
South Pointes opening added a new layer.
City and school officials discuss rivalries openly and cheerfully. They say its healthy competition for bragging rights that instills pride in young players. Many have fond memories from years of competition.
But there were darker moments too.
Walter Brown, a Rock Hill school board member who married his Rock Hill High sweetheart, had four children, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren attend the school, recalled tension in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Northwestern fans waved signs from the stands that said Bearcat parents worked for Trojan parents. One year, someone draped Northwesterns bleachers with garnet-colored streamers Rock Hill Highs team color.
There were times when there were tombstones with Bearcat players names on them stuck around the field, Brown said.
Norwood counts the student reassignment required to open South Pointe in 2005 as the most controversial issue he has tackled on the school board.
At the time, some accused the school board of dismantling a community tradition. They argued that opening a third school and creating another football team would water down the quality of play and wreck the communitys cultural fabric, Norwood said.
That didnt happen.
The fervor for that (Northwestern-Rock Hill) rivalry has decreased somewhat since a third high school came along, Norwood said. But theres no question that South Pointe has risen to the top very quickly.
Leonard understands why people worried.
We were the first school to open in 30 years, he said. Its almost like we were fighting to get on the table.
Rather than water down sports in the city, Leonard said, adding a school gave more students a chance to play sports and take part in extracurricular activities.
All that adds to the richness and the flavor that having rivalries brings, Echols said.
Linda Gilmore, whose son Stephon was a South Pointe star now playing for the Buffalo Bills, knows the Bearcat-Trojan rivalry well. She graduated from Rock Hill High.
Watching how her youngest son Steven, a seventh-grader, and his friends admire South Pointe players and talk up the Northwestern game, Linda believes times have changed.
This is the rivalry that matters now, because of the winning, she said. Rock Hill hasnt had that winning streak (lately).
That could easily change.
High school athletics are fairly cyclical, Ahl said. Our ninth-grade squad is 5-0. Its possible in three years, it could be reversed.
Shawn Cetrone 803-329-4072