Hawks, Blue Devils look for early edge in playoff race

The goal is obvious, to be a playoff team. Not just a once every few years deal, either, a perennial participant.

It’s a spot where Norcross has been before, until last year’s 5-5 season knocked it off course after four straight playoff trips.


Mill Creek Hawks (7-AAAAA)

Coach: Shannon Jarvis

Record: 2-2, 1-0 region

Last week: Beat Mountain View 42-6

Norcross Blue Devils (7-AAAAA)

Coach: Keith Maloof

Record: 4-0, 1-0 region

Last week: Beat Duluth 35-0

When: Today, 7:30 p.m.

Last meeting: Norcross won 31-7 last year

Directions to Norcross High School: From I-85, go west on Beaver Ruin Road to Buford Highway and turn right. At the next light, turn left on Langford Drive. Cross Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and turn left on Spalding Drive. School is on the left.

Series history:

2009: Norcross 31, Mill Creek 7

2008: Norcross 19, Mill Creek 0

2007: Norcross 24, Mill Creek 10

2006: Norcross 28, Mill Creek 14

It’s where Mill Creek, in its seventh season, wants to be. The Hawks made the playoffs for the first time in 2007, but they haven’t been back.

The two programs play tonight in Norcross in a game that will be a major boost to the winner’s playoff hopes. The victor also will sport a nice tiebreaking edge in Region 7-AAAAA, where six teams with reasonable playoff aspirations (North Gwinnett, Norcross, Peachtree Ridge, Mill Creek, Collins Hill and Duluth) have only four available playoff spots.

“It’s a huge game for us,” said Mill Creek head coach Shannon Jarvis, whose team has never beaten Norcross. “We know we have to play well to play with them.”

The Hawks realistically are 3-1 on the field — an error in the school’s academic department forced a forfeit of a win over Cherokee — and most importantly are 1-0 in the region after hammering Mountain View 42-6 last Friday.

Their veteran offense has been a big part of the good start, averaging 34.8 points and topping the 30-point mark in all three games. Quick Devonte Lewis and the power blocking of fullback Tyler Cierski and an offensive line led by Austin Hagan and A.J. Ruechel has led to success running the ball. It’s a nice mix with a passing game that returned quarterback John Russ, also a dangerous runner, and wideout Brandon Hayman.

“We’ve had some success so far on offense and we did have a lot of people returning there,” Jarvis said. “With that comes a responsibility Friday to play well against a really good defense. The best one we’ve faced to this point.

“Their front seven, really their whole defense, is very solid. They make the offense execute and they don’t make mistakes. They don’t have to gamble much.”

Norcross’ defense returned six of its seven starters from last year’s front seven, as well as another part-time starter on the defensive line. Tackles Ben Bradley (West Virginia commit) and Nick Ehrhardt, as well as ends Demetrius Alston, Silverberry Mouhon and O’Shae Bridges, have made it miserable on opposing offenses this season.

Linebackers Seth Hinsley and John McWilliams also returned as playmakers for a group that is allowing just 6.5 points per game this season with two shutouts. Norcross (4-0, 1-0) opened region play last week with a 35-0 win over Duluth.

“We’re playing solid on defense and hopefully that will continue throughout the season,” said Norcross head coach Keith Maloof, whose team is No. 8 in the Class AAAAA state rankings. “These guys are playing really good together as a unit.”

Mill Creek’s defense hasn’t been as dominant, but it needs a big effort tonight against a Norcross offense with big-play capability from standouts like running back Kendrix Huitt and Hinsley, a fullback who had seven carries for 150 yards and two touchdowns last week. Allowing big plays has been an issue in recent seasons for the Hawks, who lost their season opener 34-31 to Dacula because of that weakness.

But the defense has tightened up in the past three games, allowing 14 points or fewer in each.

“(Mill Creek’s) good, they could easily be 4-0 too,” Maloof said. “They’re solid on both sides of the football. They’re a good football team. And our games with them have always been battles.”