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North Gwinnett out to snap region title hex against defending champion Lions

Photo by Christine Troyke

Photo by Christine Troyke

North Gwinnett and Peachtree Ridge have been down this road before.

The two teams meet tonight at North Gwinnett for the Region 7-AAAAA championship.

It's the fourth year in a row the Bulldogs have played in the title game, while it's the second straight year for the Lions.

It's the final game of the regular season and the anticipation for this contest has been mounting since the preseason. There will be future Division I college football players on the field, an anticipated sellout crowd and regional cable television will air the game.

Step aside the Battle of Five Forks. The biggest game in Gwinnett is in Suwanee tonight with the Region 7 crown on the line.

"Pretty cool, isn't it?," North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire said. "It's really neat because it's at the end of the season and a game like this gets you ready for the playoffs."

Facing the pressures of a big game shouldn't be a problem for either team. Both have been in big games recently. No. 2 North Gwinnett opened the season with a win over nationally ranked Prattville, Ala., and has made deep runs in the playoffs the last three years.

"This is not our first rodeo being in the spotlight," Sphire said.

No. 8 Peachtree Ridge reached last year's Class AAAAA state title game after a thrilling win over Grayson in the semifinals. The Lions also made a trip to Valdosta to play perennial power Lowndes, which has won four state titles since 1999. The 51-17 loss is the only blemish on the Lions' record this season.

"We're really excited. Our kids are extremely excited for the opportunity we have," Peachtree Ridge head coach Bill Ballard said. "We're excited to play a great football team and it's for the region title."

North (9-0, 7-0 region) features Division I standouts Austin Shepherd and JuWuan James. Shepherd has committed to Alabama, while James has decommitted from Alabama and is considered the top offensive lineman in the state.

"They've got a huge line of scrimmage. It's like an SEC offensive line," Ballard said.

The duo will have to block for quarterback C.J. Uzomah, who has offers from many of the top ACC and SEC schools. The junior missed last week's game against Duluth with an injury and will be a game-time decision against the Lions.

"We've told our kids he's definitely playing and were preparing for him to play," Ballard said.

North Gwinnett scored on the opening kickoff of last year's game, but those were the only points they could muster. Nick Lombardo threw two touchdown passes to lead the Lions (8-1, 7-0 region) to a 19-7 win. North managed just 65 yards of total offense in the second half.

"We were fortunate last year. They were a little banged up," Ballard said.

North Gwinnett features one of the top offenses in the county, averaging 32 points. The Bulldogs will face a stingy Peachtree Ridge defense that has allowed 11 points per game this season. Take away the Lions' lopsided loss to Lowndes and Peachtree Ridge's defense has been pretty nasty.

"The defense has been very solid," Ballard said. "We haven't given up a ton of points. That's a big thing to hang our hat on is a to have a good defense."

It's on the defensive side of the ball where the Lions feature a lot of their college-caliber talent. Three members of the Lions' secondary have committed to colleges, led by Brad Roby (Vanderbilt), Brian Williams (Indiana) and Juan Burnette (Elon).

"They've got a heck of a football team," Sphire said. "They are good on defense. They are very outstanding on defense with stopping drives."

A win would not only secure the region championship for North, but also put it in the Gwinnett County 10-0 club. The county has had 21 teams finish the regular season undefeated, but never North Gwinnett.

In the 52-year history of North Gwinnett, the Bulldogs have never won a region title. They've come close in recent seasons. North has played for the region title in the final game of the season the last three years. It lost to Norcross in 2006 and 2007. The Bulldogs dropped to 0-for-3 in the title game last year when Peachtree Ridge won 19-7.

The region championship propelled Peachtree Ridge to a state finals appearance in the Georgia Dome.

"We want to win the game. It's important to us," Ballard said. "We look at it like there's two championships. One at the end of 10 games and one at the end of 15 games and we want to win them both."

But North Gwinnett showed you don't need to win the region crown to reach the title game. The Bulldogs went to the state championship game in 2007.

"I don't know if it's more important if you don't do anything the next five weeks," Sphire said.