Among the nine high school football playoff games involving teams from our area scheduled for Friday, one has a unique history unlike any other.
Raines vs. Bolles.
Between 2011 and 2016, the Vikings and Bulldogs met 11 times, including five games in the playoffs. Bolles won six games and Raines won five. Most of the games went right down to the wire. That series was memorable for those who played and coached in the games as any other.
There are no players left on either roster who played in those games, but there are a few guys with some familiarity. That includes Bolles linebacker Skyler Malone, whose brother, Austin, played for the Bulldogs until 2015. Malone remembers what those games meant.
“I always remember them being crazy games. Obviously, I was there for my brother, but just it was always back and forth,” Malone said. “We would play them in the regular season, and they would get the best of us and then we play them in the playoffs and beat them. So, it’s really exciting to be doing what my brother was doing six years ago, so it’s really exciting to be a part of it again.
Since 2016, Raines and Bolles have been in different districts so they haven’t played in the regular season or the playoffs. But both programs talked this week about what those five years meant to the rivalry and the excitement it adds to Friday’s matchups.
Bolles head coach Matt Toblin was focused on his teams back then, but when the opportunity to see the Bulldogs and Vikings play came, he made it a point to be there.
“At some point, we would get knocked down in the playoffs, and Raines and Bolles are having a rematch in the playoffs,” Toblin said. “And those are games that we were always trying to get to watch. Coach (Deran) Wiley and Coach (Corky) Rogers both did an amazing job. And those are special years for both teams”
Wiley said many times that coaching against Corky Rogers made him a better coach and helped him lead the Vikings to a state championship in 2018. Donovan Masline, now the head coach at Raines, was on the staff under Wiley, so he remembers how the series against Bolles played out.
“The competitive nature on both sides, the history of each program, I think knowing when you speak about Bolles, you think of Coach Rogers and as of late when you speak of Raines, you think about Deran Willey,” Masline said. “The battles that they had, as head coaches with each other was tremendous for the community and for fans of football.”
As for this year’s matchup, it was anything but a foregone conclusion that Raines and Bolles would meet in the playoffs. Raines knocked off Riverside, a team that had upset the top seed in the regional, Jackson. Bolles got by Episcopal and then Bishop Moore, who had eliminated Bishop Kenny, a team Bolles lost to in the regular season.
But the meeting is set and many of the same storylines return from the past.
“They are extremely athletic,” Toblin said of the Vikings. “At quarterback and all the skill positions. Multiple running backs, in the secondary at linebacker on the D-line. It’s a violent group of fast kids at every position group and so it presents a super unique challenge.”
Raines’ calling card has been running the ball this season. Quarterback Roman Doles has thrown more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (11), but he is dangerous when running. Doles leads the team in rushing yards and touchdowns (772 yards, 7 rushing TDs) and with Sincere Cohen and Mark Miller in the backfield, the Vikings have run for 164 yards per game as a team.
Defensively, defensive back Kenton Kirkland is one of the top players in the area. The cornerback has rarely been tested this year, but he has intercepted a pair of passes and blocked a punt. He has taken the opponent’s top receiver out of the game as a rule.
Jamari Whitehead is the Vikings’ leading tackler. He has 81 tackles and 13.5 sacks this season to lead the team.
“We’re just ready,” Whitehead said. “The Atmosphere is going to be crazy. And we’re just gonna go out there and battle.”
Bolles’s strength has been tougher to define. The Bulldogs have overcome injuries and losses this year. They lost three straight games during the season. That had not happened at Bolles since before Rogers took over. Those losses, however, came to Brunswick, a team that went undefeated in the regular season, unbeaten Trinity Christian, who is still chasing a third straight state title, and Savannah Benedictine, who won the state championship in Georgia last year and are still alive in the 4A playoffs this season. Bolles also lost to Bishop Kenny for the first time since 1977.
Quarterback D.J. Moore missed significant time this season as well.
Despite the obstacles, Bolles is a win away from a fourth straight final four under Toblin.
“We’re relentless,” said tight end Connor Cox, a South Carolina commit. “I just want to keep on coming in and practice every day and work harder every day to get better. We’re all trying to achieve a goal to get as far as possible.”