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MIDDLE SCHOOL FOOTBALL: Cousins, Veterans Memorial get taste of Friday night lights
Patrick Johnson coached Cousins Middle School football to a 15-2 record and a NewRock runner-up and league championship finish in his two seasons at the helm. - photo by Gabriel Stovall

COVINGTON, Ga. — All three Newton County high school football teams sharing the turf at Sharp Stadium will be away from home Friday night. But that doesn’t mean Sharp Stadium will be void of football. 

Newton’s on the road at third-ranked Lowndes and Alcovy and Eastside will enjoy bye weeks. But two of the area’s top middle school squads, Cousins Middle (4-0) and Veterans Memorial (4-0), will duke it out under the Friday night lights usually reserved for the high school squads. 

And count Veterans Memorial coach, Dante English as one who’s exceedingly amped up about the opportunity for a rare regular season middle school game at Sharp. 

“Man, to me, Friday nights mean everything,” English said. “It takes me back to when I played high school ball and we played at Grady and Lakewood Stadium. When Friday came and the bands come out, you know it’s time to go. It does something to you. Just gives you chills.” 

Veterans Memorial football coach, Dante English looks on with Veterans standout, Willis Sheppard, III during a recent practice. - photo by Gabriel Stovall

It’s a game English says he and his principal, along with the principals and athletic directors from other county middle schools, have been trying to work out for some time. And now that it’s here, English says he hopes it can be a showcase for that will speak well for all county middle school squads. 

“My opinion of it, it’s just a big thing for all of us,” he said. “Not just Veterans and Cousins. They play Saturday and Friday games in places like DeKalb and Fulton. I think it gives parents more opportunity to participate, and more fans a chance to come. And that brings out the best in you.” 

Cousins coach, Patrick Jones tends to agree, and expects Friday night’s atmosphere to be electric for a middle school game. 

“It’s huge for us to be able to do this game, because one thing I’ve learned in my year and a half of being in Covington, when there’s a rivalry in town, everybody’s there,” Jones said. “And with Cousins being the oldest active middle school in the county, you’ll have a lot of supporters and people wanting to see Cousins do well. It’s good for all of our kids.” 

Beyond the middle school pageantry in place, the action on the field looks to be pretty competitive as well. Both squads come into Friday’s game with 4-0 records. And it looks to be a test of strength on strength. 

Veterans Memorial has flexed its muscles on offense through the first four games, with standout performances from players like Willis Sheppard, III, Jayden Culijve, Melvin Mapp and William Nash. 

“Those guys are making big plays for us right now,” English said. 

Meanwhile, the Cardinals from Cousins use defense as their calling card. 

“The fact that our defense hasn’t given up a point all year is exciting,” Jones said. “I think we’ve rode the wave from that and used it as a tool to say that we can do some special things this year.” 

Through four games, the only score Cousins has surrendered is a touchdown on a kickoff return. Jones mentioned players such as Ramon Hernandez, Grant Woodall and James Amos among his standouts this year. If he had to pick a big three, he says, it would probably be Dallas Johnson, Hernandez and DeAntae Bruno. But he prefers to emphasize a team-over-individuals approach.

“I hate to say it as an (Atlanta) Falcons fan,” Jones said. “But it’s really that New England Patriots way of it not just being one guy, but the whole team, that we try to preach here. It’s like that San Antonio Spurs and Gregg Popivich model. We’ve got more than one or two guys who can make plays.”

Both coaches say they have the utmost respect for the programs they’ll face Friday in a game that some middle school football fans believe could be a preview of the NewRock League Championship game in late October.  

“Veterans is a really good team,” Jones said. “I’ve told our guys that if they wanna play in Sharp Stadium (for the league championship) again like last year, this is the kind of team you’ve got to beat. It’s the kind of team you may see again.”

English echoes those sentiments. 

“Cousins is a pretty good team, to say the least,” he said. “They’re one of our biggest opponents, and we just go at it every year. I know some of the guys over there who coach with them. We battle it out on the track as well. They’ll be a well-coached and disciplined team. I think it’s going to be a good game.” 

Both coaches also say they know they’ll have to keep some of their players’ enthusiasm in check a bit, as many of them will get a glimpse of what to expect when they make the jump to high school ball next season. 

“It’s really a big thing for our eighth graders,” English said. “They’re going to be going to high school anyway next year, so this gives them a big taste of what the feel and competition level will be like.”

Said Jones: “Our kids are very excited. They just have a funny way of showing it sometimes. But I know come kickoff time, we’re going to be excited to play. I’m looking forward to a good game.”