Quarterback play will again have a key role as A.L. Brown hosts Concord Friday night in the 81st annual Battle for the Bell.
Kannapolis will rely on a newcomer, first-year Wonder Brandon Eppinger, while Concord will be led by junior B.J. Beecher, who's slated to start his third game in the longest-running rivalry in North Carolina.
Eppinger, a Georgia native, knows about the tradition at A.L. Brown. After moving to the area nearly two years ago, the senior said history played a role in him transferring to the school this past summer.
"I had heard that Kannapolis had a great winning tradition," said Eppinger. "There are so many great athletes around here, and I knew that I could help them continue winning."
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Beecher, on the other hand, has been going to Concord football games - including Bell Games - since he was in third grade, when he started to watch his older brothers, first Tommy and then Matt, play for the Spiders.
Beecher recalled tossing the football on the hill at Concord's Robert C. Bailey Stadium during games as the capacity crowds cheered on their teams. He said he's grateful to now be one of the players on the field.
"It's awesome," said Beecher. "When I was younger I used to look up to football players and think 'Wow, I don't know if I'll be good enough to play with those guys one day.' "
The 6-8 junior quarterback has been integral for the Spiders during the past few seasons. Beecher took over as a starter midway through his freshman year after a 0-6 start by his team. He went on to lead his team to six straight wins, including a 13-10 win over Kannapolis, before losing in the second round of the 3A playoffs.
"He gave us a spark," said Concord coach Glen Padgett. "Once that team started winning, they started to believe in each other and a lot of good things happened after that and have happened since then."
Beecher followed that up by throwing for 2,606 yards and 32 touchdowns last year to lead his Spiders on a 9-5 season and a trip to the third round of the playoffs. Concord lost last year's Bell Game 28-21.
He credits his relaxed demeanor out on the field, which he admits has come with experience, with his success.
"You just get more comfortable the more you play," said Beecher, explaining that he's no longer afraid of making a tough pass, trusting his ability to place the football.
Even though his Spiders lost 19 starters after last season, including nine on offense, the 16-year-old hasn't dropped a beat this year. Beecher had started the season by passing for 1,885 yards and 24 touchdowns with a 61 percent completion rate heading into Concord's Oct. 21 game against Hickory Ridge.
Kannapolis' Eppinger has put up equally solid numbers, throwing for 1,179 yards and 19 touchdowns before his team's game against Northwest Cabarrus Oct. 21.
A.L. Brown coach Mike Newsome said he was impressed by Eppinger's strong arm and technique from the get-go.
"He definitely had some raw talent," said Newsome. "He hadn't had a ton of experience up to that point, but I felt like he could get the job done."
The 6-0, 180-pound senior said he was convinced he could take over the Wonders' quarterback job.
"I expect to be great at everything I do," said Eppinger. "I knew I had to work hard to get the job, but whenever I transferred here I knew that I could work hard enough to get it."
With a dedicated fan base at Kannapolis come high expectations every year. Eppinger said he felt that when he first suited up in his Wonders uniform in the team's season opener against Shelby.
Those nerves were palpable on the field, as Eppinger struggled, completing only four of his 13 pass attempts for 24 yards. But since, the 18-year-old has gotten comfortable with Newsome's offense along with his teammates.
Eppinger has also been accurate this season, completing more than 60 percent of his passes and tossing only two interceptions, one of which was a dropped ball by a receiver. Against Hickory Ridge earlier this month, he completed all 10 of his attempts for 206 yards and five touchdowns to lead his team to a 47-0 win.
Newsome said Eppinger has been a big reason for his team's success.
"He's managed the game really well," said Newsome. "He keeps the team on track, but he can comes up with some huge plays when he has to, as well."
Both Eppinger and Beecher are pro-style quarterbacks, who sit in the pocket looking for open receivers.
The rival schools began the season with mixed expectations. The Wonders were expected to win the conference, while the Spiders were thought to be in a rebuilding year. Yet the Bell Game will again have conference championship implications this year.
Despite of losing 28-26 to Hickory Ridge last week, Concord (8-2, 6-1) still has a chance of splitting the SPC title with Kannapolis (9-1, 7-0) with a win Friday.
A.L. Brown, which has been dominant the past few months as they've outscored SPC opponents 293-24, will also get the help from running backs Damien Washington and Kalif Phillips. The Wonders' their talented receivers, Keeon Johnson and Terrance Highsmith, should give the young Spiders defensive backfield a hard time.
Concord's running game also been strong, led by senior Denzel Phillips, but a group of talented receivers - Bravone Howard, Alex Asbury and Zosh Heilig - could test the athletic Wonders defense.
Newsome, who knows a thing or two about rivalries being part of the Independence-Butler games, said the Bell Game is special.
"With the community being so tight definitely makes the rivalry a little bigger," said Newsome.
His rival coach agrees.
"There are guys that are playing or have played college football that will not play in an environment as electric as that game will be," said Padgett. "It's an unique setting: Two great towns, two great football programs."