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Region powers clash early on

For the past two years, it was the Game 10 showdown, the one that decided the Region 7-AAAAA title.

The outcome of the Norcross-North Gwinnett football game still may determine the region championship, but it won't be a one-game, winner-take-all scenario like the previous years. But that doesn't diminish the importance when the two teams meet Friday, much earlier than they're matchups of 2006 and 2007.

"At least that's six less weeks I have to worry about this game," North head coach Bob Sphire joked about Friday's matchup, which will be televised live by CSS.

The past two Norcross-North meetings have been hyped greatly, mainly because the two have emerged as the region's top teams both years.

Both entered the 2006 regular-season finale with 9-0 records and last year North was 9-0 and Norcross 8-1.

When they play Friday, they will sport identical 1-0 region records with seven more region games left on the schedule.

"I don't know what the ramifications are down the road, but it's big right now," Norcross head coach Keith Maloof said of the early-season game with North.

Unlike the previous two years, there's no guarantee the winner of Norcross-North will win the region. The two teams each have a loss and play in a competitive region that features Peachtree Ridge, Mill Creek and Collins Hill, currently 7-AAAAA's only remaining unbeaten team.

But a huge win early in the region schedule certainly won't hurt the two-time defending champion Blue Devils or the Bulldogs, who won't have to face Collins Hill because of a scheduling quirk.

"Whoever wins this Friday certainly has a leg up, but there's a long way to go," Sphire said. "Anything can happen. Whoever loses on Friday is not out of the picture."

Sphire just wants his team to be in the game from the start. That's been a major issue the past two seasons, when his Bulldogs have lost the games and the region titles to Norcross.

The Blue Devils won 24-14 last year over North - the eventual runner-up in Class AAAAA - and won 31-10 in 2006.

"We have to come out of the gate and play well early in the game," Sphire said. "The bottom line is we've got to play well early and we have not done that against them (the past two years)."

North prepared for its showdown with Norcross by facing the nation's No. 1 team (and leading at halftime), Byrnes (S.C.), followed by matchups with Brookwood and South Forsyth.

The Bulldogs' inexperienced defense has been a pleasant surprise, allowing only three points in their last eight quarters.

Norcross, which opened against Camden County in the Corky Kell Classic, got its best defensive effort of the season last Friday against Mill Creek. The Blue Devils posted eight quarterback sacks and held the Hawks to 136 total yards, just 40 of those rushing yards.