By Katie Fallon
On Aug. 31, two Buckhead private schools will kick off their football seasons in a match as filled with tradition as the schools themselves.
The Westminster Wildcats and Lovett Lions will meet on the Westminster School campus at 7:30 for a gridiron match under the proverbial Friday night lights. Because the two schools have alternated among divisions over the years, the game has been held off and on for a number of years, but the tradition has remained.
If last year’s overall season is any indication, Lovett may have the upper hand in this year’s matchup. The Lions won the 2006 battle by a score of 19 to 0 and even made it all the way to the state semifinals at the Georgia Dome before losing to Dublin High School.
The game was first played in 1960 and Lovett also won that first battle. But, over the history of the matchup, Westminster has the advantage, winning 10 of the 18 total games and outscoring the Lions 263 to 170.
Since that first game, there were periods from 1961 to 1977 and from 1982 to 1993 when the game was not played. This year’s battle is the 14th straight matchup, making it part of the longest stretch of consecutive years the game has been played.
Both teams’ cadre of coaches have experience leading their teams in the “Battle of Buckhead” and look fondly on the tradition and rivalry the game creates between the schools that are only two miles apart from each other.
Leading the Lions
In his third season coaching Lovett’s varsity football team, head coach Mike Muschamp said he thinks the rivalry between his Division AA team and Westminster’s Division AAA team is an ideal way to start the season.
“I like it as the first game of the season because it gives the kids an immediate focus,” Muschamp said. “When you’re playing your cross-town, or really down-the-street rivals, it amplifies the importance.”
The head coach said the rivalry is partially born from the fact that many of the students from both schools have grown up in the same area and have oftentimes played on the same recreational sports teams.
“These kids have gone to school together and played together since they were probably seven or eight years old,” Muschamp said. “But the tradition of the rivalry goes back to the fact that we’re both outstanding academic institutions.”
Because the teams are not currently in the same divisions, Muschamp said he feels the rivalry is intensified simply for bragging rights because there are no other schools like Lovett or Westminster in the area.
“I think it’s a great game,” he said. “It’s a neat rivalry. It’s pretty intense, but an awful lot of fun.”
While his own Lions won last year’s game by a score of 19 to 0, Muschamp said he hesitates to make any kind of prediction, especially against a rival, because he never knows what’s going to happen.
For the season, Muschamp said the players are thinking big.
“We have high expectations simply because of what happened last year,” Muschamp said. “I try to downplay that because it’s a different team. Our kids expect to do well. They’ve worked hard.”
Individually, Muschamp said he will look for senior Andre Hicks, last season’s Team MVP, to be an example for the rest of the Lions.
“We expect an awful lot from Andre,’ Muschamp said. “He’s such a level-headed kid. He’s even-keeled.”
Winning with the Wildcats
While Westminster’s football operations director Joe Sturniolo sees the night as just another non-region game, he knows the students and families from the schools don’t exactly see it that way.
“That’s not how the community feels,” Sturniolo joked. “They take it seriously. It’s a family affair.”
Much like Muschamp, Sturniolo said a bulk of the rivalry comes from the fact that so many of the families and students grow up alongside each other, know each other’s siblings and go to the same churches.
“Given that we have the same kids, it’s going to be a rivalry. The schools are very similar. There’s a rivalry whether we want it or not.”
Consequently, Sturniolo said head coach Gerry Romberg and the rest of the coaching staff do not have to do much, if anything, to prepare the players and school community for the game. He said the players and their classmates psych themselves up on their own for the fall football kickoff game.
While Sturniolo likewise declined to make a prediction on the game’s outcome, he did say that his seniors have motivation for winning. Because Lovett has won the last two meetings, some players have not had a chance to experience a Westminster victory. Noting Lovett’s appearance in last year’s state semifinals at the Georgia Dome, Sturniolo said his players do have something to prove.
“We’re going to do everything we can to beat them,” he said.
Although Westminster will technically have home field advantage, Sturniolo said that does not make for much of an advantage for this specific game as far as the fans are concerned.
“They all come from the same neighborhoods” Sturniolo said. “The crowd is pretty well split. Once we’re on the field, there isn’t much of an advantage.”
If anything, the coach said not having to travel to an away game, even if it is only two miles down the street, does have its advantages. He said the team does not have to take the extra time to load and unload buses with equipment and the team gets to prepare in its own locker room.
For the rest of the season, Sturniolo said he is expecting solid performances from senior captains Clay Gibson, Matt Lunati, John Hamilton, Brad Williams and Will Miller. The number of Wildcat seniors this year has increased from last season’s 12 players, three of whom were injured. This year there are 22.
“We have a lot more senior leadership on the field,” Sturniolo said. “It’s also the largest team we’ve had in a long time.”
One thing for sure, the battle is sure to be played out before a sea of fans sporting either Lovett blue or Westminster green.