HAMPTON --—Without a doubt, it's the best football rivalry in the Eastern Region. It might be the best in the state.
Hampton vs. Phoebus -- or Phoebus vs. Hampton, if you prefer. Two teams who have combined for 10 of the last 15 Group AAA Division 5 state titles.
That should be different this year.
Hampton and Phoebus are both undefeated. The Phantoms have won all seven of their games with a winning clock. The Crabbers are outscoring the opposition on the average 49-5. "I don't think you're going to see it be one-sided this year," Woodside coach Danny Dodson said. "Both teams are really good."
They're also as evenly matched as they've been since at least 2005.
Both have strong running games -- Hampton leads the Peninsula District at 263 yards per game; Phoebus' Tyree Lee is the individual leader with 1,013 yards. Both have outstanding defenses -- the Crabbers have given up 33 points all year; the Phantoms 22.
Hampton beat Bethel, which is tied for third place in the standings, 63-7. Phoebus beat Woodside, which is also tied for third, 50-10.
"We're equally matched on both sides of the ball and have talented, key players," Crabber lineman Troy Garrett said. "We both have strong running games and experienced players." It has all the markings of a down-to-the-wire, could go-either-way finish. Yet that's not how it usually goes.
The last time a game between these teams came down to the fourth quarter was 2005. The Phantoms won 12-6 on Haroon Brown's 12-yard touchdown run with 5:34 left in the game. Hampton appeared to have tied it with a minute left on Tyrod Taylor's 59-yard punt return, but an illegal block nullified it.
A month later in the playoffs, the Crabbers got revenge with a 29-7 win that set the stage for another state championship. And a year later, Hampton smoked Phoebus 35-10. Then came the Phantoms' domination, which included two shutouts -- last year's 17-0 win was one of them -- and a running-clock 42-6 blowout in 2008.
"We played hard, but we just couldn't play with them last year," Hampton coach Mike Smith said. "Sometimes there are circumstances you can't deal with. But that was last year. This is another year.
"We're probably in a little bit better shape than we were last year. We're more experienced now."
Phoebus coach Stan Sexton sees that.
"They have an explosive offense that can score from anywhere on the field," he said. "Big, power backs with good speed. Defensively, they're as good as we thought they'd be. They run well and never give up on a play.
"They don't give up big plays on defense. That's the thing we try not to do, too. They probably have the same philosophy as we do that teams can't drive the field on us."
The rivalry doesn't pit brother vs. brother, but it's certainly friend vs. friend and/or neighbor vs. neighbor. Phoebus linebacker Caleb Taylor said he has "probably half" of Hampton's roster among his Facebook friends. He and Crabber quarterback David Watford will be teammates next year at Virginia.
"You always want to beat your friend," Sexton said. "I'm not saying we're friends, but the kids are. And it's the guys you know who you want to play your best against. Same thing on their part. They want to prove the same thing we want to prove -- that we're the best team in the district."
Suffice it to say, the coaching staffs aren't on each other's Christmas card list. And while Sexton and Smith are taking the "it's no more important than the next game" approach, they know this one is just different.
Over the last four years, the average attendance for this game is 7,068. That's just short of capacity at Darling Stadium and it's more than three times the average for all other PD games. It receives more attention from the fans and media. Especially in a year like this.
"It should be that way," Smith said. "If you have two teams that are going into the eighth ballgame undefeated, it should be that way. I'm not downplaying it. It's obviously a big game. A lot of people are looking forward to seeing the outcome of this game."
This time, it should be a good one.