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If recent history is any indication, the 18th “Battle of Barrow” between Apalachee and Winder-Barrow Friday, Aug. 20, could go right down to the wire and give both teams’ coaching staffs an early gauge on how their players handle close, big-game situations.

The Wildcats and Bulldoggs will duke it out at W. Clair Harris Stadium to open the 2021 regular season, starting at 7:30 p.m., and it’s Winder-Barrow that enters with the upper hand in recent meetings. The Bulldoggs have won two consecutive contests and seven of their last eight over their cross-county rivals, opening up a 10-7 lead in the all-time series after Apalachee won five straight from 2008 through 2012.

But since a 56-14 rout by the Bulldoggs in 2017, the game has been tightly-contested in each of the first three seasons that Ed Dudley (Winder-Barrow) and Tony Lotti (Apalachee) have been at the helm of their respective programs. All three games have been decided by a touchdown or less and come down to the final possession, including a 34-27 victory by the Bulldoggs at R. Harold Harrison Stadium last year.

Another close game is the expectation for both squads Friday as they enter the season with heightened expectations — the Bulldoggs looking to improve upon a 5-6 finish last year and get past the first round of the state playoffs, where they’ve bowed out the last two seasons; the Wildcats looking to finally climb over a hurdle that has them without a postseason appearance since 2009.

“It should be a good game for both schools,” Dudley said this week. “It’s a good, clean rivalry, and we have a lot of respect for Apalachee. I think our guys will play well Friday night. We have a young and improving defense going up against what can be an explosive offense for them.”

“It does seem like it should be a good one and be pretty close,” Lotti added. “They’re a team that runs really well and is really deep at the skill positions. A lot of good will hopefully come out of the game. For us, it’s going to be important not to play behind everything and to make sure we’re not setting them up. The last couple of years, that’s been what’s hurt us.”

Self-inflicted wounds have in fact been common issues for the Wildcats and Bulldoggs in the last couple of years, and each team saw some of those pop up in their preseason scrimmages. The Wildcats were set back by fumbles and crucial penalties that derailed promising drives on offense in a 14-14 tie against Commerce at home on Aug. 6. The Bulldoggs lost the three-quarter varsity portion of their Aug. 12 home scrimmage against Gainesville 21-7, with the Red Elephants coming away with a 28-14 victory after the junior varsity-led fourth quarter.

Gainesville blocked an early punt and returned it for a touchdown and then blocked a Winder-Barrow field-goal attempt later in the first half and converted it into a 72-yard touchdown drive to go up 14-0.

Down 14-7 late in the third quarter, the Bulldoggs had an opportunity to go down the field and tie the game after Gainesville missed a 37-yard field-goal try. And they got off to a promising start, working the ball down to the 10-yard line before the Gainesville defense stiffened and forced a fourth-and-long situation. A dropped pass by the Bulldoggs on the goal line turned the ball over on downs, and the Red Elephants immediately ripped off a 93-yard touchdown run to go back up by two scores.

“If I had a pencil eraser and could go back and erase those big plays and our poor play in the red zone, I would,” Dudley said. “Overall, we were pleased with the effort. It was totally necessary, and I was glad that we got to see a quality opponent like Gainesville. There was more good than bad out there, but a lot of things to work on. I was not real pleased with our execution, and there’s things we have to improve upon if we’re going to have a shot against Apalachee.”

The main key, Dudley said, will be eliminating the big plays by Apalachee, which returns its top offensive playmaker from last year in senior Colby Sikes, a quick and elusive running back who can also catch passes out of the backfield and pose problems for opposing secondaries.

“He’s their go-to guy,” Dudley said of Sikes, who headlines a multi-pronged Apalachee backfield that also includes sophomore Prince Tate, who put together an encouraging freshman season for the Wildcats, as well as seniors Deven White and Jacob McCluskey among others. “They have a great deal of speed in their run game, I think maybe even more so than we’ve seen in the past couple of years. They’re very dangerous and we’ve got to avoiding giving up the home run shots, those long runs that (Sikes) has made a good career on. But if you overplay him, the other guys will get you. So we’ve got to be disciplined.”

As it breaks in two new quarterbacks with sophomore Howard Holloway and senior Isaiah Skinner both seeing action in certain situations, Apalachee, already a run-heavy offense in the Wing-T/pistol hybrid system, will likely lean heavily on the backfield and a veteran offensive line that returns multiple starters — including senior left tackle Elijah Harris, who was an all-region selection in GHSA 8-AAAAA last fall.

“Hopefully we do a good job of executing our misdirection stuff and create some chances for big plays,” Lotti said.

Both coaches have struck an optimistic note on their lines of scrimmage on the offensive and defensive sides, and those matchups will likely prove pivotal in the final outcome.

“We’re definitely going to have to have a big night up front,” Lotti said, pointing to what he sees as an explosive Winder-Barrow offense in its own right.

Junior Conyer Smith, who took over as the Bulldoggs’ starting quarterback halfway through the 2020 season, is back this year and is expected to be ready to go for the opener despite leaving last week’s scrimmage early with a bruised knee. Smith has a handful of receivers to throw to, with senior Stewart Allen chief among them, while junior Aidan Thompson leads a committee of running backs looking to replace the production of graduated 1,000-yard rusher J.C. Green.

“We need to be able to shut their run down and tackle in space, which is something we’ve not done a good job of,” Lotti said. “(Smith) has done a good job settling into (the quarterback) role for them. He’s a big physical kid with a big arm, but he can also run it.”

“They’re big up front on defense and stout,” Dudley said of Apalachee, “so we need to do a good job of being balanced. You’ve got some of the best matchups in this game up front, so there’s a good probability they could cancel each other out. The first game is always about conditioning, turnovers and penalties and how well you can manage all those.”

And though the game is, for practical purposes, one of a handful of non-region games for both teams with no bearing on postseason prospects, the pride stakes aren’t lost on Dudley or Lotti, who believe the game should offer up a good test of the intensity of their teams.

“We realize it’s an emotional game that means a little more than maybe the other non-region games, and we’re looking forward to it,” Dudley said. “They’ve got a really good team, and I think you’ll see both teams hammering tongs right down to the very end.”

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