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Comparing high school football to religion in the Bible Belt of Eastern Tennessee may be boarding on blasphemy for many worshipers of both churches, but when local teams Maryville (Tenn.) High and Alcoa (Tenn.) High were invited to showcase one of the state's best rivalries on a Sunday, in a nationally televised game, there was potential for a Holy War.
Maryville head coach George Quarles was out in front of the battle lines.
"We went out and spoke with community leaders and local churches before we decided to move forward," Quarles said.
As it turns out, Quarles was preaching to the choir as many churches in the area decided to move services to Saturday in order to accommodate the Aug. 26 noon kickoff.
"We saw it as a once in a lifetime opportunity for the kids," Quarles said. "And to put the spotlight on a great local rivalry with a rich history (was special)."
There are 25 state championships between the two schools and multiple national rankings. Throughout the last four years, the two teams have split the series and the spotlight.
Maryville took the game in 2011, winning by a score of 26-19 and finishing the season with a Class 6A state title a No. 15 ranking the RivalsHigh 100.
Alcoa won in 2010 by a score of 35-31, and also in 2009, with a final of 41-29. Both of those seasons concluded with Class 3A state titles and national rankings, No. 79 and No. 61, respectively.
The relationship between the two communities is the top concern for Quarles and not the perception of the programs outside the Knoxville-area.
"I still think high school football is about communities," he said. "That is another reason we agreed to the ESPN2 game, so two community teams will share the spotlight."
Quarles has long been an opponent of out-of-state competition, arguing the point that the focus should be locally.
"I'm not sure a Texas team playing a California team is actually helping high school football," he said. "Maybe it is. But I still think it should be about communities.
"We have been contacted. [Duncan (S.C.)] Byrnes and Hoover [(Ala.) High], among others, have reached out to us. I am not so naive to believe we could go to Florida and compete with one of the powerhouses with eight to ten D-1 players. I just do not think that would be a great matchup for us. Besides, [Memphis (Tenn.)] Whitehaven delivers a great deal of that in the championship game."
With nine state championships to his credit and a head coaching placement at the U.S. Army All-American game under his belt, Quarles acknowledged that as the profile of his program grows, he may have to leave the state at some point to find a willing opponent.
"That would be the logical next step," he said. "But we are fortunate and that has not been an issue for us. Our primary objective is a state championship and to have an influence on our kids and community. I am not convinced that big out of state games serves those goals."
One of the points of pride for the community is the new field turf that was installed at Shields Stadium. It will be unveiled to the national audience on ESPN 2 and the revenue gained from the television contract coupled with community support is certainly advantageous.
"We had two issues," Quarles said. "A bad drainage issue combined with a significant overuse problem. We were already going to spend somewhere between $100,000 and $150,000 to fix the drainage issues and that would not address our overuse issue.
"Our team, the band, soccer, Physical Education classes, the middle school team and many others in the local area (use the field)."
When the turnstiles rotate, and the metaphorical collection plates fill, Maryville and Alcoa will showcase the power that high school football can have over all of its followers.
-- Hobe Brunson of TNVarsity.com contributed to this report.
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