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Friends, Neighbors, Rivals: Big Competition Equals Motivation to Shine

Tuesday, November 17, 2015  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

Nothing beats a football Friday in the fall. Crisp weather, falling leaves, and a favorite team is ready to take the field. It’s even sweeter when the opponent is the top rival, adding to the energy among the players and the fans in the stands. With school spirit at a peak, many schools capitalize on their biggest rivalry game to boost attendance, engage alumni, host events, and even solicit donors.

Attendance is a major characteristic of the annual football game between rivals St. Xavier High School (St. X) and Trinity High School. Fans come in droves from all over Louisville, KY, and also from out of state, overflowing either school’s home stadium. With a record attendance of 38,500 and a usual fan base between 27,000 to 31,000, the game has been played at the University of Louisville Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium since 1998. Previously, the showdown took place at the Kentucky Fair & Exposition Center.

An off-site venue gives the teams a neutral ground as well as ample space for fans and for other activities happening on the night of the game, such as tailgating, family gatherings, or reunions. At least one wedding, with the bride wearing a white football jersey, has taken place during the game’s tailgate.

“It’s a community event,” said St. X Athletic Director Alan Donhoff. “We always had very large crowds but when the university moved to their new stadium, it was much larger and much nicer, and our crowd grew. We have a lot of folks who travel in to attend.”

More than just the big game goes on during the Rivalry Week, as it is known. St. X and Trinity compete in 9th grade and JV football; 9th grade, JV, and varsity soccer; and sometimes in a cross country meet as well. A few weeks prior to the game, the two alumni associations play each other in the Shillelagh Cup Golf Competition at a local country club. Both schools’ campus shops sell spirit wear made specifically for the game and they have a steady stream of ticket sales.  

“Both schools do a really good job of focusing on healthy competition rather than the negative aspect of the rivalry,” Donhoff said. “Both schools want to win but the attitude and energy are extremely positive.” In fact, he said it is not unusual for fans from the opposing teams to tailgate together outside. Of course they sit on opposite sides inside the stadium.

And the schools have found ways to be collegial during the game. They alternate which school’s chorus sings the National Anthem each year. One year for a Vietnam veterans’ memorial, cheerleaders from both teams carried the U.S. flag onto the field. Dance teams from several of the city’s girls’ schools perform a routine together during halftime. “So many of the kids went to elementary school together and they all know each other,” Donhoff said.

The game itself is typically pretty close and competitive. St. X lost this year on October 2, 15 to Trinity’s 20, but met again in state playoffs, which has happened ten times since 2003. Trinity also won the November 13 playoff game, 34-7.

The St. X – Trinity rivalry has remained on good terms since its beginning, but that is not the case for other adversaries, which can create issues and challenges for school administrators. From 1940 to 1971, the annual meeting of McCallie School and Baylor School (both in Chattanooga, TN) did not take place because the competition and surrounding attitudes had gotten “out of hand,” according to McCallie’s Director of Development Penny Grant, a 29-year employee. The schools agreed to suspend their matchup.

Students at both schools played numerous pranks on each other, such as dropping fliers or hanging signs on campus. There was even an incident with a streaker. “The administration has a harder stand on the students and keeping them in line,” Grant said. Nowadays, students paint banners for the game, hang flags on their cars, wear spirit clothing, and enjoy the festivities leading up to the game, including a bonfire, dance-off, skits, tailgating, and a pep rally. The game itself, which dates back to 1905, is a major event, alternating locations between the two campuses. This year’s final score from the October 2 game was Baylor 38, McCallie 14.

Sometimes your biggest competitor can also be your best friend. Some have likened the relationship between McCallie and Baylor to a brotherly type of contest. When a student at Baylor School passed away unexpectedly days after the McCallie-Baylor  game this year, students from McCallie, Girls Preparatory School, and Chattanooga Christian School came together for a memorial at an area park and released balloons in the student’s honor. Many also attended his funeral service.

Taking advantage of the large numbers of alumni already expected on campus for the annual game, Grant’s office and alumni volunteers organize numerous reunions that weekend, which about 500 alumni attend. Reunion groups plan activities such as luncheons, dinners, tours around Chattanooga or nearby places, golf, skeet shooting, student-led campus tours, a class photo, and parties. They also attend a reception with faculty and the on-campus Alumni Achievement Awards luncheon. They normally attend the game as a group.

Ten years ago, McCallie launched a Reunion Giving Program to encourage alumni to “come back and give back,” Grant said. “It’s an opportunity to re-engage people with McCallie and with each other.” This year’s 50th reunion class, which met separately from the McCallie-Baylor game weekend, donated $300,000, the largest reunion gift to date. Because those alumni did not experience the rivalry game as students, they do not feel the same connection with it. As classes from the 1970s and beyond celebrate their 50th reunions, their activities will move to the game weekend, Grant said.

McCallie and Baylor are not the only schools to shut down their biggest game. Their matchup began in 1976 but from 1982 to 1993, The Lovett School and The Westminster Schools, both in Atlanta, did not play “The Battle of Buckhead,” as their football game is known. “The rivalry had gotten so nasty,” said Jay Watts, assistant director of athletics at Westminster. School administrators decided that the game would not take place, but by the early 1990s they decided to resume play, with all involved having better attitudes. “Now, we try to make the event more cooperative than combative,” Watts said.  

The schools have found ways to work together to make their game more of a community event. In the past, proceeds from the limited-edition annual game T-shirt sales went toward Habitat for Humanity. The cheerleaders from both schools perform a joint routine at halftime. Westminster and Lovett alternate home fields every year and run shuttle buses to accommodate overflow parking. The game is also broadcast online so that both sets of fans can watch even if they cannot attend in person.

Watts calls it “a respectful rivalry. The games have been pretty competitive and fun, with lots of hype and excitement.” Westminster won this year’s matchup, 26-23.

These schools are among the nation’s best-known high school rivalries, garnering attention not only for their football programs but their schools as a whole. Other top rivalries include Woodberry Forest School in Woodberry Forest, VA, and Episcopal High School in Alexandria, VA. Their series started in 1901 and holds the record for the longest consecutive high school rivalry in the South. In Ohio, St. Edward High School in Lakewood and Cleveland’s Saint Ignatius High School go to battle in the annual “Holy War.” In Toledo, OH, St. Francis de Sales High School and Central Catholic High School fight for the “Irish Knight.” Montgomery Bell Academy aka “Big Red” in Nashville over the years has counted several schools among its top foes, including Father Ryan High School, Brentwood Academy, and, more recently, Ensworth High School.

Independent schools also compete with each other outside of the athletic arena, often in academic events and in admissions, which makes everyone want to strive to be better. Providence Day School, Charlotte Country Day School, and Charlotte Latin School all are located within a few miles of each other in the city of Charlotte, NC. Families looking for an independent school frequently visit and apply to all three schools, which share a number of similarities.

The schools belong to a consortium which meets annually to discuss and agree upon mutual application deadlines and testing dates, but separate open house dates. “We’re pretty collegial with each other,” said Cecil Stodghill, director of admissions for Providence Day. “All the schools are wonderful in their own way and each has its own specific culture. I spent a lot of time talking to our families about what we do well, not what the other schools don’t have.”

Still, they keep an eye on what the others are doing, programmatically and otherwise. “It forces you to step up your game, academically, with marketing, and in everything,” said Stodghill. “It’s wonderful to have a rivalry that is nice and tasteful.”

Although any rivalry can expect to be accompanied by the two groups ribbing each other to some degree, all enjoy the positive feeling of cheering for their schools, reuniting with old friends, and putting forth their absolute greatest efforts. The schools themselves enjoy the opportunity to host people on campus at a variety of events, put fundraising or marketing strategies to work, and bask in a moment where the schools are at their best. 


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