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New challenges arise in playoffs

While change was a theme emphasized throughout the recently completed presidential election, it might also accurately describe the involvement of Gwinnett County schools as the state high school football playoffs get under way Friday night.

Six games involving 10 Gwinnett schools are among the first-round games in five different classifications on tap Friday, and while it may seem like a cliche, many of the coaches involved want their teams to look at it as an entirely new season.

"We're all 0-0 now," said Grayson coach Mickey Conn, whose Rams (10-0) are ranked No. 5 in the state and will begin the Class AAAAA playoffs Friday night by hosting Collins Hill at Britt-Moody Field. "You can really throw the records out."

The biggest change most local teams face will be seeing opponents they are a little less familiar with, including Buford (10-0 and No. 1 in Class AA), which will meet Heard County for the first time when the Braves come to Tom Riden Stadium on Friday, and GAC (6-4), which will travel to Callaway for their first matchup with the Cavaliers.

Of course, there are exceptions.

With the two regions that are home to Gwinnett schools in Class AAAAA matched up with each other in the first round, some familiar first-round matchups are scheduled.

The most notable of these is Friday's first-round matchup pitting Brookwood (6-4) against No. 6 North Gwinnett (8-2) at Tom Robinson Stadium.

"This is round five," chuckled North coach Bob Sphire, whose Bulldogs will be taking on the Broncos for the fifth time in the last three seasons, including the second round of last year's playoffs and a 17-3 North win in a regular season game Sept. 5.

Even with this matchup, however, Sphire says it is wise to approach this game as if it were the first matchup - something the Bulldogs had to do twice last year - with Brookwood and Walton, each of which they'd met in the regular season - on their way to the Class AAAAA state title game.

"No team is the same eight weeks later," Sphire said. "That was the case (with both Brookwood and Walton) last year. It's a whole new ballgame, and it's better to approach it that way. A short memory is the best thing in this situation."

There is also at least one renewal of a familiar matchup of two teams that haven't played each other in years, as will be the case when Parkview travels to Norcross for the 29th overall meeting between the Panthers and Blue Devils, but the first since 2005.

And while a playoff game is special in and of itself, a home playoff game can be even moreso.

When Peachtree Ridge (8-2) welcomes Dacula (5-5) on Friday, it will be the first home playoff game in school history. Even when the Lions won a share of the title in 2006, they did so as a No. 4 seed from their region and played every postseason game on the road.

"It's nice to be able to play at home," Peachtree Ridge coach Bill Ballard said. "Hopefully, we'll have a big crowd and the students will turn out and get loud and excited and have an impact on the game.

"It's nice not to have to travel, but we're just excited to be in the playoffs, period."

For Wesleyan, which plays host to Warren County on Friday, it will be the Wolves' (8-2) second home playoff game ever, and first since 2003.

But what is different this time around it is on the heels of the Wolves' first-ever region championship and coach Franklin Pridgen said the rare chance to host a postseason game, as well as the lofty seeding, should create a different air around the game.

"I've detected a little buzz (around school Monday)," Pridgen said. "Being a No. 1 seed ... the expectations are a little different than if you're a No. 3 or 4 seed. When you win a (region) championship, there's a greater feeling of confidence and that we belong (in the playoffs) and want to stick around for a while."

SideBar: Playoffs

First round playoff matchups for Gwinnett teams (games at 7:30 p.m.)

Friday

AAAAA

Collins Hill at Grayson

Norcross at Parkview

Brookwood at North Gwinnett

Dacula at Peachtree Ridge

AA

Heard Co. at Buford

GAC at Callaway

A

Warren Co. at Wesleyan