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June 1, 2011

Small Georgia school has national aspirations

Dallas Jackson is the Senior Analyst for RivalsHigh. Email him your question, comment or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

VALDOSTA, Ga. - Located in the shadows of Valdosta (Ga.) High, the nation's all-time leader for high school football victories, and Valdosta (Ga.) Lowndes, the winner of three Class AAAAA state titles in the last six seasons, is tiny Hahira (Ga.) Valwood School.

With an enrollment of only about 400 students (and that's pre-K through high school) and a membership in the Georgia Independent School Association (private schools) rather than the more traditional Georgia High School Association, the Valiants are rarely mentioned in the same breath as their larger neighbors.

That all could change quickly.

"We don't have the bodies to be them, to be Lowndes or Valdosta," third-year head coach Brannon Tidwell said. "But if we do this correctly there is no reason we can not become the next Jacksonville (Fla.) Bolles (School)."

The comparison, on the surface, seems absurd: A school with a moderate history of success aspiring to become a 10-time state football champion and one of the most well-recognized private schools nationally.

Aulden Bynum domiantes the line on both sides of the ball.
However, the ambitious Tidwell has his plans in place. And, more importantly, a cast of players that believe in the mission.

Tidwell, whose coaching resume includes stops at Jacksonville (Fla.) Mandarin, Jacksonville (Fla.) Andrew Jackson, Mississippi State and Florida State, knows it will be a lot of work to make his program nationally relevant. But he also thinks it is an easy sell.

"We are in a town that loves football," he said. "Maybe more than anything, this place has pride and passion for the sport and the community will buy in quickly to a winning program."

The community of coaches has been the first to join the charge.

"I am lucky," Tidwell said. "We have a lot of really good former head coaches that volunteer here. I have 14 coaches and 30 players. There are times I just stand back and watch those guys coach.

"If we can get this thing on the right path and I can help get a couple of kids onto the college football field, it could snowball quickly."

It could be the group of rising juniors that helps lay the foundation for both of those key pieces to the puzzle.

"When we were freshman, we started," Aulden Bynum, a 6-foot-5 260-pound lineman that has attended Valwood since pre-kindergarten, said. "We went both ways and we lost a lot."

Playing against other small private schools, the 2009 team was 1-9, and Tidwell candidly said: "I have no idea how we won that one."

Bynum is beginning the recruiting process and has had schools such as South Carolina and Tennessee stop by the school but said he's still waiting for an offer from Georgia, where his father attended and he called his "dream school," which would bring an end to his recruiting process.

The team has three other playmakers coming through the ranks: lineman Griffin Clyatt (6-4, 295), receiver Rashad Mathis (6-2, 185) and linebacker Allan Taylor (6-0, 230).

"That group of kids will help make us," Tidwell said. "They all have the potential to be special players."

The most talented of the four may be the one least likely to have landed at the school.

"I didn't want to come here," Mathis said. "It was my dad's idea and my mom made me."

Mathis came to Valwood his freshman year. He would have been districted to play at Valdosta High.

Mathis is starting to receive looks from several schools and his talent could lead him to playing on Saturdays or beyond.

"I think I have Sunday football potential," he said. "I know it will take a lot of work, but that is what I want."

As a sophomore, he totaled 1,154 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns.

He also changed his tune on his new environment - even if old teammates still try to talk him into coming back to Valdosta.

"I love it here," he said. "Some of the guys still try to get me to come back, but my school work is in order and I am able to learn without a lot of distractions. And I really like Coach."

The learning environment is a key component to the school, but Tidwell is quick to point out that it is not as great of a gap as many other private schools have over nearby public schools.

Rashad Mathis has the ability to go up and make a catch.
"We can't just sell parents on a better education because both Lowndes and Valdosta score so well on that scale as well," he said. "It is an overall experience. It is more personalized. What seems like a disadvantage on the football field (having fewer participants) can be a positive to many in the classroom."

It is that tight-knit community that Bynum enjoys.

"I have two classes that only have six kids," he said. "I feel like I get more attention, get my questions answered. Heck, I am friends with pretty much everyone on campus."

Taylor, who Tidwell touted as the physically strongest player on the team, has been at the school since sixth grade and says that the school bonds quickly.

"There is unity here," he said. "There isn't a division here everyone really wants each other to succeed."

Part of the success is starting.

The 2010 team went 10-3, winning a first round playoff game.

"We took another step last year," Clyatt said. "Football is doing a lot better here than in the past and that can help our school.

"I know that when we were getting better, it made me work harder. Instead of stopping at five reps I would push for seven or eight. I could see it making us better."

Another reason the kids want to work hard is the relationships that Tidwell has made at his previous stops. And the rules he has in place to take advantage of them.

"Coach knows people," Mathis said. "I mean he can get us to a big college football school from a small high school. But he makes us work hard."

Actually he insists on it.

"The kids know how I operate," he said. "I will work hard for them if they work hard for me. It is a two-way street here and we all can win."

Time will tell if he is right.

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