North-Norcross a clash of Region 7 heavyweights

The high-stakes battle between North Gwinnett and Norcross has been going on for the last five years.

There have been bragging rights, state rankings, undefeated records and region championships on the line.

None of that has changed for Friday's matchup, which features the region's top two scoring offenses. North is ranked No. 7 in the state had has won the last three meetings, including the last two region titles. Norcross is ranked No. 9 and has an undefeated record.

The winner of this game has won the Region 7-AAAAA crown four of the last five years. That's why with five games left in the season, a win Friday is so important.

"We go at it every year. Whether they win it or we win it, it's two tough teams going at it," Norcross senior Domonique Mason said. "It's like the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's a big game."

The heavyweight matchup began in 2006 when Bob Sphire arrived as North's head coach. Sphire led his team to a 9-0 record heading into the final game against Norcross, which was also undefeated. Norcross won the game to claim its first region title in 15 years.

It was a similar scenario the following year as Norcross beat North again and won the region title.

The series has shifted in North's favor in recent years. The Bulldogs have won the last three meetings, including last year's 38-0 victory. North has won the last two region crowns and no team has ever won three Region 7-AAAAA titles in a row.

"There's a lot of football to be played in this region," Sphire said. "I don't think whoever loses this game is out of the region title. The same with whoever wins isn't a lock to win it."

Peachtree Ridge is the only other team to win the region in the last five years. The Lions have not lost a region game this season.

"We still have Peachtree Ridge and Collins Hill," Norcross head coach Keith Maloof said. "We can't let down for anyone at all. We have to keep fighting."

Norcross is off to a 5-0 start for the second year in a row. Joseph Wilber has emerged as one of the county's top quarterbacks, throwing for nearly 900 yards and 10 touchdowns. It doesn't hurt to have a strong supporting cast around him. The Blue Devils have an offensive line that averages 6-foot, 250 pounds, the county's second-leading rusher in Alvin Kamara (593 yards, 8 TDs) and a trio of speedy receivers. Tennessee commit Jason Croom is the team's top receiver, while Anthony Autry and J.T. Tolbert are big-play threats.

"They are similar to McEachern with a group of guys that can make plays at any time," Sphire said. "Their defense is probably as good or better than McEachern's."

Norcross was without team captain Tanner Maloof in its win over Mill Creek two weeks ago. The linebacker/fullback injured his knee against Duluth three weeks ago and is still questionable for tonight's game.

Tommy Tate leads the team in tackles with 44, Mason is tied for third in the county in sacks with four and Autry leads the team with three interceptions.

"They've got a front four with a bunch of D-I looking guys," Sphire said. "They are big, nasty and mean. They are just playing really well. They've got talent."

North Gwinnett has a pretty dangerous squad of its own. Bulldogs QB Scotty Hosch has put up similar numbers to Wilber with 1,080 yards passing and 10 TDs. Hosch has the luxury of Donnie Miles and Joe Jones in the backfield and one of the county's top receivers in Chad Scott.

"They play hard. They get after it," Keith Maloof said. "They've got two big running backs and two good receivers. They do a good job at what they do."

North's biggest strength is its defense. The unit is allowing just 11.8 points a game and hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher this season. Sphire has been especially happy with his defensive line, which is led by Division I prospect Jordan Washington. Justin Alabi, Joseph Dillard, Jon Jones, Dante Sawyer and Preston Green have also made an impact up front.

North has won 17 straight Region 7-AAAAA games dating back to the 2008 regular season finale with Peachtree Ridge. Both teams have had time to get players healthy and prepared for tonight's game after last week's Region 7 bye week.

There's a lot at stake with tonight's game, but in Region 7 it's like that week in and week out.

"It's just another big game in Region 7," Maloof said.