“Well if you’ve never been to the Super Bowl that’s kind of what it’s going to be like for Haywood County. The Haywood County Super Bowl. There’s going to be a lot of fans here, there’s going to be a lot of emotion.”
That’s what Kevin Hall, a 58-year-old Waynesville native, would tell someone who’s never seen a Tuscola vs. Pisgah football game, otherwise known as the Haywood County Clash.
That group includes your new Sports Editor at The Mountaineer. Having been on the job here for a little over a month, I’d never witnessed the rivalry. From when I first announced I was taking this job, I was told over and over about what a spectacle it would be.
So, I decided to write a first-timer’s account of the big game. First, I decided to hear from the people of Haywood County who had gathered for a game about what it means to them.
Tom Alexander, who served as Haywood County’s sheriff for 24 years, has a unique perspective on the rivalry, having had grandsons play at both Tuscola and Pisgah.
“It brings everybody together in the county at one place and at one time,” Alexander said. “They have a good time, and they have different teams, but they still talk to each other. Sometimes it’s people you don’t see but maybe this time every year.”
The question of what the game means to the communities was answered over and over again with “bragging rights.”
Winning the county clash brings bragging rights for the whole year for the winning community, something that Canton has now had for seven straight years.
I was also told repeatedly to expect an intense game, but also to never think I know what to expect.
The rivalry means a lot to the students as well, and they know how lucky they are to get to participate in such an event.
“It’s pretty crazy,” said Pisgah senior Jake Moore. “It’s nothing that you’ve ever experienced going to any other football game. There’s definitely a lot more people and you really get goosebumps when you walk into it. Even if you’re not playing in the game, just coming and watching it’s pretty wild.”
With all that in mind, I settled in to watch the game, intending to spend the first half on the Tuscola side.
What struck me first was all of the people. Everyone who said it would be more people than I’d even seen at a high school football game weren’t kidding.
The stands were packed to the gills on both the home and away sides, and there were people standing at least two deep all along the sideline fences, with even more on the back concourse. There was even a small group with camp chairs set up on Waynesville Middle School’s roof above the Pisgah fan section. You can be told over and over again that you’re going to see over 12,000 people in a high school stadium, but it’s hard to visualize until you’re actually there.
As the game got ready to start, that there would be a raucous atmosphere was already apparent. Both student sections led chants and cheers, and the fans in the stands were buzzing in anticipation of the opening kickoff.
As Tuscola ran through its inflatable tunnel and black and gold balloons drifted down, it was clear this was going to be quite the atmosphere.
And it was. Even as both teams struggled to get going (think first quarter Super Bowl jitters), the crowd was on the edge of its seat, with every successful play from each side drawing a sizeable reaction.
Another reminder of just how many people there were came whenever the team in the section across would pick up a first down or defensive stop; you could hear just how loud its fans were.
For the second half, I decided to go over to the Pisgah side to get a feel for both crowds. With the fans on that side packed even closer together, I got an even better feel for the crowd’s intensity.
While the game itself, a 14-0 Pisgah win, lacked some of the entertainment of previous iterations, that didn’t change the physicality and intensity on every play.
And the lack of offensive flair did nothing to diminish the crowds. Be it Bears’ faithful roaring for Pisgah’s two touchdowns, or the Mountaineers’ supporters when they forced a fumble with Pisgah in a goal-to-go situation, both crowds were in it until the end.
By the time the game ended, I felt like I’d been a part of something special.
In my time as sports editor of Technician, NC State’s student newspaper, I covered many big ACC football and basketball rivalry games, two ACC Tournaments and Stanley Cup Playoff games. I don’t say this to brag on myself, but to give a bar for which I’m measuring a rivalry game.
Obviously it’s unfair to judge a high school football game against those types of events, and yet, I find myself thinking the Haywood County Clash is on par with some of the other great rivalries I’ve witnessed, albeit on a smaller scale.
What makes a rivalry special is what it means to the people involved. There’s something much more intimate about this type of rivalry, one that stems from what it means to the fans. Being at the county clash, as you make out the cheers and chants throughout the game, you can tell what it means to the people.
The pride both sides have in their football teams and communities, win or lose, shines through in every reaction. The desire for community bragging rights is definitely felt.
While a larger-scale rivalry might show pride in one’s college, or love for a professional team someone’s been supporting since they were 3 years old, this was something different. For the many people who have spent their whole lives in this county and the Waynesville and Canton communities, the county clash represents not just a football game, but a way of life. They’re not just cheering for their team, but their home.
While I haven’t seen the NFL’s championship game, I can now say I’ve attended Haywood County’s Super Bowl. And I can definitely see why it would be referred to as such.