In his more than 30 years of football experience, Mark Fleetwood has been in some pretty big ball games.
The first-year Peachtree Ridge head coach played for South Carolina's Gator Bowl teams in the early 1980s. He later coached Jacksonville State to the Division II national championship game in 1989.
Those are pretty substantial games in the grand scheme of football. Fleetwood thinks tonight's matchup at North Gwinnett ranks right up there.
"This is as important as any because it's where you are right now," Fleetwood said. "To these kids and what it means and the success, to me it's as big as any game I've ever played in or coached in."
No. 7 North Gwinnett and No. 10 Peachtree Ridge are both 8-1 and undefeated in Region 7-AAAAA. The winner of tonight's game, which will be shown state-wide on Georgia Public Broadcasting, will win the region title heading into next week's state playoffs.
"Let me tell you, in Georgia AAAAA football a chance to win a region title is special," North head coach Bob Sphire said. "It's high school football in a great state. Even to be able to compete in this, that means a lot."
North Gwinnett is seeking its third straight region title. The Bulldogs have won 21 straight region games, dating back to a 2008 loss to Peachtree Ridge in the regular-season finale.
"To me, North is one of the top teams in the state of Georgia. Period," Fleetwood said. "I don't care about rankings or what year, I think they are always very well coached."
North Gwinnett and Peachtree Ridge began the season with losses in the Corky Kell Classic at the Georgia Dome.
Since then they've each reeled off eight straight victories to reach tonight's Region 7-AAAAA championship game.
They've dodged some close games along the way -- North rallied from a 22-point second half deficit to beat Norcross and Peachtree Ridge beat Collins Hill on a 33-touchdown in the game's final minute.
"That probably helped them a lot and believing in themselves," Fleetwood said of North. "It's those type of games, like the Collins Hill game for us, you need those types of games to get over the hump."
The Bulldogs have relied on a smothering defense, while Peachtree Ridge has made big plays offensively with a variety of playmakers.
Billy Best is one of the top quarterbacks in the county this season, throwing for more than 1,500 yards and 10 TDs. Running back DiAndre Atwater missed last week's game with an ankle injury, but is expected to play tonight. Joe Horn and Ahmad Harris are two of the county's leading receivers.
"Wow. All I can say is wow. They've got some players. They have 8 to 10 that can make plays," Sphire said. "Their quarterback is really playing well and seems to be throwing it well. They can hurt you running and throwing."
North Gwinnett has built one of the state's top defenses. The Bulldogs are only allowing 188.2 yards a game. Defensive linemen Jordan Washington (Mississippi State commit) and Justin Alabi, and linebackers Carl Rider (Furman commit), Steven Burger and Justin Thomas lead the group.
"It's a pressure defense. They are going to play as fast as any team we've played," Fleetwood said. "Athleticly, if you go down every position, they're as good as anybody we've played."
North Gwinnett and Peachtree Ridge met for the region title in 2008 and 2009. The Lions missed the postseason last year and Fleetwood was promoted to head coach in the winter. He knew he inherited a talented team, but this year's success has caught him a little off guard. He hopes it can continue tonight and through the playoffs.
"I'm surprised, I guess," Fleetwood said. "You want to win and that's what we've done. At this point, we want to win the next one."
For more stories on these schools, visit www.gwinnettprepsports.com/north and www.gwinnettprepsports.com/peachtreeridge.