By Brandon Brigman
There's no blueprint on how to build a football team from scratch.
Nowhere in the football rules does it say - "This is how you should start a football program." Which is why two of Gwinnett's youngest teams have gone about it in two different ways.
Do you take your time with a non-region schedule for a couple of years to get players experience like Grayson did?
Or do you throw them to the wolves and have them start playing a varsity schedule almost immediately like Peachtree Ridge?
Those are the kind of dilemmas Grayson and Peachtree Ridge faced when they began football programs earlier this decade.
Mickey Conn was at Grayson when it opened in the fall of 2000. Now in his eighth season as the Rams' head coach, Conn has his team on the brink of being one of the top teams in the county and the state.
"I would love a state championship like Peachtree Ridge in your fourth or fifth year, but those are hard to come by," Conn said. "It's great what they were able to do in a short period of time."
Each team has had its own amount of success. Peachtree Ridge won the Class AAAAA co-state championship last year, while Grayson has three playoff appearances and a region title to its credit.
But they've both taken different paths to where they are today.
Grayson opened in the fall of 2000, drawing most of its students from South Gwinnett. The Rams played a junior varsity/varsity schedule their first year and then moved to a varsity non-region schedule their second season.
"The biggest thing I wanted to do was create an atmosphere of character, how to handle yourself in the classroom and just build on character and leadership," Conn said.
"We chose to go with a JV/varsity schedule because I wanted to create an environment that our kids could compete in and winning creates that type of atmosphere."
Grayson went 8-1 its second season and the next year went to a region schedule in Class AAA, taking advantage of lower enrollment numbers to play down for two seasons. The Rams won the Region 8-AAA title and finished 8-4, reaching the second round of the state playoffs. They also made state the following season in 2003, essentially using four years to get ready for AAAAA football.
"I think that was a big thing for us, competing in a region and having success," Conn said. "It helped us because we didn't have a lot of depth. Starting a new school you just don't have the depth and I absolutely think that helped us.
"Peachtree Ridge was obviously able to overcome that very quickly."
Grayson moved to Class AAAAA in 2004 and has had marginal success, going 15-17 with a second-round playoff trip last year.
The same year that Grayson was moving to Class AAAAA, Peachtree Ridge began playing its first varsity region schedule. The Suwanee school opened in the fall of 2003, drawing students from Collins Hill, North Gwinnett and Duluth.
After going 1-7 their first year, the Lions followed that with a 1-9 campaign in their first year of varsity region competition.
"We started with a ninth grade, junior varsity and varsity team the first year, so it was a challenge just to fill out the team," said former Peachtree Ridge head coach Mike Owens, now an assistant coach at Brookwood. "We had younger kids that we had to throw in the fire."
Blair Armstrong took over as head coach in 2005 and led the Lions to a 6-4 record, one game out of the playoffs. Peachtree Ridge followed that up with a co-state championship.
Building over time vs. instant success
It's easy to look at the two programs now and say that Peachtree Ridge built its program the best way. After all it won a state championship in its fourth season.
But the Lions still have not accomplished a lot of other things like region titles and playoff consistency.
"This program has come on really quick, but we're not that far off from Grayson or Mill Creek. Just because we had some quick success doesn't mean you've already arrived as a program," said first-year Peachtree Ridge head coach Bill Ballard.
"Over the next few years will really tell where we're at as a program with consistency making the playoffs, trying to win a region championship, that will tell the true picture of where we're at as a program."
Grayson got its biggest win in school history last year when it beat perennial power Parkview, while Peachtree Ridge is still winless against Region 7-AAAAA rivals Norcross and North Gwinnett. The Lions were a No. 4 seed from their region when they won a share of the state championship last season.
"We're about where we need to be. Those first two years in AAAAA we didn't have the wins to show what we've accomplished," Conn said. "We just couldn't finish the deal those first two years in AAAAA. Those were growing years and last year was important in taking that next step."
Pros vs. cons
Both programs see the pros and cons with starting programs the way they did.
Grayson had to deal with a non-region schedule that meant its first twos team weren't eligible for the playoffs.
"You miss that playoff atmosphere those first two years," Conn said. "Not going to the playoffs and swallowing your pride and accepting that you're trying to lay a foundation to put the kids in a position they can be successful is important. But knowing that you won't have a postseason to play for, that was the toughest part."
Not only did Grayson have to build its football team from scratch, the program also had to build its own facilities. The Rams raised money to build their own stadium and weight room because the Special Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) did not cover those amenities.
Schools like Peachtree Ridge and Mill Creek, which have been built since Grayson, had their facilities paid for by the tax. Grayson is having a fieldhouse built by the tax, which Conn hopes will be done by the end of the season.
While Peachtree Ridge was able to play against varsity competition right away, it would have been nice to take things a little slower and gradually move to Class AAAAA. But with the Suwanee area growing so rapidly it was not possible.
"It wasn't a numbers thing when (Grayson) started, they didn't start in AAAAA," Owens said. "Peachtree Ridge started in the largest classification in the state. That's a pretty big hit to take early on. We had to teach the kids how to get used to the speed and intensity of playing at that level. We weren't overly athletic, but we were able to compete and the kids did everything we asked them to do."
Peachtree Ridge is still trying to find stability with its head coach as the Lions are on their third coach in five seasons, while Conn has been at Grayson since it opened in 2000.
"I think the way Grayson did it is the best way you can start a program," Ballard said. "They played a JV schedule, then they played in AAA and now AAAAA. Mickey has done a great job building that program.
"That's a great way to do it if you can."
So which is the best way to build a football program? It's safe to say there is no sure-fire way.
"I don't think there's a formula to follow on how to build a program," Owens said. "There's a lot of things that go into building a program from the chemistry of the team to the players. Grayson started out a successful team and has been successful over a period of time. I think both programs did it very well and they each just took different paths to get there."
A breakdown of tonight's Peachtree Ridge-Grayson matchup:
When Peachtree Ridge has the ball
Peachtree Ridge head coach Bill Ballard was able to bring his high-powered offense from Tucker and install a very productive unit with the Lions.
The Lions, who are ranked No. 3 in the state, were able to put up 378 total yards as they cruised to a 28-0 victory over Shiloh last week.
Junior running back Ronnie Smith led the scoring effort with three touchdowns and 55 yards rushing, however the duo of quarterback Asher Clark and running back Brandon Davis did most of the damage on the ground.
Clark led the team in rushing with 11 carries for 108 yards and was 6 of 11 passing for 48 yards and one interception. Davis, who has committed to Central Florida, rushed for 100 yards on 14 carries and one TD.
"They've got a quarterback and a running back that will be really hard to stop," Grayson coach Mickey Conn said. "I'm really impressed with their team speed."
Grayson will try to slow down Clark and Davis with its stingy defense that allowed just 63 yards rushing last week to Collins Hill.
"They've got an excellent front seven and the (linebacker Tristan) Strong kid is an awesome player," Ballard said. "That whole front seven is going to be tough for us to run the ball against."
When Grayson has the ball
Grayson will stick to what it does best - running the ball.
The Rams' wing-T offense is set up to grind it out against teams and no example is better than last week against Collins Hill. Grayson ran the ball 55 times for 219 yards.
"Obviously, you have to stop the run," Ballard said. "They have four really good running backs. No. 30 (Matt Brock) is a tough runner inside and No. 33 (Chandler Priest) is a good blocker and tough runner and No. 24 (Ean Pemberton) is fast and quick. No. 1 (Robert Staton) is also a real good player."
Grayson had three running backs rush for over 50 yards, led by Brock with 72 yards on 20 carries and three touchdowns. Pemberton rushed for 71 yards and Staton had 50 yards.
"I think their quarterback (Tyler Horne) does a good job with the way the offense is set up," Ballard said. "They're so big up front (on the offensive line) and we're not as big as we'd like to be."
Peachtree Ridge will try to stop the run and make the Rams throw at a secondary that features three Division I commitments in Derrick Bryant (LSU), Cameron Demps (Virginia Tech) and Brandon Sanders (Ole Miss).
While the game has no baring on the playoffs there's still a lot at stake in the Week 2 matchup.
There's Gwinnett County and region bragging rights on the line. Last season, Region 7-AAAAA clobbered Region
8-AAAAA 8-2 in games played against the two regions, including Peachtree Ridge's 9-0 win over Grayson last year.
"I'd love to beat Peachtree Ridge, but we've got our eyes set on the region and making the playoffs," Conn said. "They (the Grayson players) know who we're playing and what we're up against, but one game is not going to define us."
A Grayson win would certainly put the Rams as one of the title contenders early in the season, while Peachtree Ridge tries to continue its unbeaten streak from last season.
Grayson kicker Michael O'Toole (broken foot) and linebacker Phillip Dickerson (separated shoulder) are out for tonight's game and are expected to miss the next three weeks. Peachtree Ridge offensive guard Jesse Garcia is out for the season with an injured knee.
SideBar: PEACHTREE RIDGE AT GRAYSON
Peachtree Ridge Lions (7-AAAAA)
Coach: Bill Ballard
Last week: Beat Shiloh 28-0
Grayson Rams (8-AAAAA)
Coach: Mickey Conn
Last week: Beat Collins Hill 27-14
When: Today, 7:30 p.m.
Last meeting: Peachtree Ridge won 9-0 last year
Directions to Grayson High School: From I-85, go east on Sugarloaf Parkway to Ga. Highway 20 and turn right. Proceed through Grayson and turn right on Hope Hollow Road. School is immediately on the left.