County goes head-to-head to open football state playoffs

Eight years ago, Gwinnett County didn't have to worry about playing another team from the area early in the playoffs.

The county was lumped into one mega-region, 12 teams fighting for four playoff spots.

Grayson and Peachtree Ridge were in the infant stages of their programs, Mill Creek, Archer and Mountain View weren't even born.

Then the county split into two regions in 2004. The northern half of the county in Region 7-AAAAA, the southern half in Region 8-AAAAA.

Now it's created a yearly battle in the playoffs. Region 7 and Region 8 always meet early in the playoffs.

Last season it was in the second round. This year the state playoffs kick off with the two power regions from Gwinnett knocking each other out in the first round.

"We knew we'd be matched up with a team from Region 8 in the first round, so no matter who we'd be matched up with, it was going to be tough," said Collins Hill head coach Kevin Reach, whose team plays at Region 8 champion Grayson. "But everybody's 0-0 now. The kids are excited about (playing in the postseason)."

Gwinnett County has fared very well in the state playoffs since the Georgia High School Association expanded to five classifications in 2000. A Gwinnett team has played for the state title every year but two and has won five titles in that time. Brookwood is the most recent, winning it all last season.

"At the end of the day, one team is going to finish its season with a win," Dacula head coach Jared Zito said. "So if you're all chasing the same goal, then you have to play each other."

It's just a shame it has to be in the first round. Gwinnett took seven of the eight games in the opening round of last year's playoffs. Even more impressive were the semifinals that featured three Gwinnett schools.

"I know in order to be the best, you have to beat the best no matter what round," Reach said. "But it sure was nice (last year) not having such a tough matchup in the first round. I wish it didn't work out this way."

Since the two regions started playing each other in 2004 it's been a fairly close battle. Region 8 holds the overall advantage with a 46-44 record over Region 7 and has a 9-8 edge in the playoffs.

"It's Gwinnett County football," Norcross head coach Keith Maloof said. "We know in Gwinnett it's all good football."

The Region 7 vs. Region 8 battle of Gwinnett teams has created a friendly rivalry between schools. Region 8 wants to see all of its teams sweep in the first round and likewise for Region 7. It's a good indicator of which region is stronger.

"I would say we do (root for our region)," first-year Peachtree Ridge head coach Mark Fleetwood said. "Our team is representing Region 7, so we're somewhat pulling for each other and wanting to make a good showing. I'm sure Region 8's the same way. They're proud of their region, too."

Once they get past their counterparts from across the county, then it's back to pulling for Gwinnett schools against the rest of the state.

"Sure, there is region pride. Year in and year out, they might be a little better than us one year and we might be a little better than them one year," Brookwood head coach Mark Crews said. "But I think the top teams in both regions have shown the past couple of years that they're pretty tough to play in the playoffs."

If there's any silver lining with playing a Gwinnett team in the first round, it's what comes afterwards with a win. If you can make it past that first round, then it sets up nicely for a deep playoff run.

"In AAAAA there should be no bad teams left," Zito said. "You've got to feel good if you make it through the first round you've got a chance because there's some good football being played in Gwinnett."