Bill Ballard knows the road to a state championship goes through South Georgia.
That's why the last two seasons the Peachtree Ridge head coach has set up away games with South Georgia power Lowndes.
It resulted in a loss last season, but propelled the Lions to a state championship game appearance.
Peachtree Ridge lost to Lowndes again this season, but another shot at a state title will have to go through Northside-Warner Robins in today's Class AAAAA quarterfinal game.
"It's more so for the travel experience," Ballard said. "They know what to expect when they get on the bus Friday. We've made trips two years in a row now. When you live in the metro area, you don't make a lot of trips where you're just driving."
Ballard hopes his team's 125-mile trip south to Warner Robins won't be like its last trip to South Georgia. The Lions were beaten by Lowndes 51-17 in Week 2 of the regular season. Four games later, Northside beat Lowndes 10-7.
"We look at that one game does not define us," Ballard said. "We've put that game behind us even though people keep bringing it up. We're a different team. That game is interesting. It was kind of a snowball game and mushroomed. We feel like we can play with anybody. There's only eight teams left in the state playoffs and they are all pretty good."
Four of the teams left in the Class AAAAA playoffs come from Region 1-AAAAA and Region 7-AAAAA. Peachtree Ridge (10-2) is joined by region champ North Gwinnett in the quarterfinals, while Northside (11-1) and Colquitt County are from Region 1.
"Without question they are one of the better regions in the state year in and year out," Ballard said. "They've got a team in the finals it seems like every year or at least in the top four. They have two teams in there still. That shows the strength of their region from top to bottom."
Northside has been one of the state's top teams over the last 10 years. The Eagles have won 10 or more games every year since 1998. Northside has played for a state championship three of the last four years, winning two of them. Both titles came in Class AAAA before it made the jump to AAAAA last season.
Northside head coach Conrad Nix is in his 24th year at Northside and 27th overall, compiling a 258-64 record.
Even more impressive is Northside's record at home. The Eagles have a 44-game home winning streak dating back to 2003.
"They're very big and athletic. They're a good football team," Ballard said. "They've got a 44 home game winning streak. They are a very tough ball club. They've won back-to-back state championships and they are tough year in and year out. If you look at their record it's impressive and you look at Coach Nix's record it's impressive, too. They are a program that is good every year. They don't rebuild, they reload down there."
Peachtree Ridge's is in its seventh year of existence and has put quite a run together that features two state championship game appearances in the last three years, which includes a share of a state title.
The Lions have flirted with tough games the last two weeks thanks to 11 fumbles, including four lost. One was returned for a touchdown in last week's 21-6 win over Brookwood.
"It's something we've talked about, ball security this week," Ballard said. "Some have been fluke and some have been not doing what they are coached to do."
Through all the turnovers, it has been Peachtree Ridge's defense that has kept the team in ball games in recent weeks. The only touchdown the defense has allowed in the postseason was after a Peachtree Ridge turnover in the first round.
"Our defense has to play to have a chance against Northside. We really need the defense to take the ball from them and create some turnovers," Ballard said.
"It's one of those games where we're not picked to win the ball game because people keep bringing up the Lowndes game. There is not any pressure on our guys. They can cut it loose and play and have fun. This is an opportunity to vindicate ourselves and what we've accomplished this season."