Staff Photo: John Bohn Collins Hill running back Jordan Parker (21) is tackled by Duluth linebacker Brandon Brinson (37) during the third quarter of Friday's game played in Duluth.
It has become a familiar pattern for a race within a race to form in the hunt for the four postseason berths from Region 7-AAAAA the past few years.
So, it comes as little surprise that region games like Friday's meeting between Mill Creek and Collins Hill at Mill Creek Community Stadium become major swing games in the region standings.
While North Gwinnett, Peachtree Ridge and Norcross continue to battle for the first tier of the region's playoff berths, the Hawks (4-2, 1-2) and Eagles (2-4, 1-2) are locked in a four-way tie with Duluth and Mountain View for the No. 4 seed, meaning a win Friday for either is critical.
"This is what you do this for," Mill Creek coach Shannon Jarvis said. "We're getting into the meat and potatoes of our schedule, and ... this is going to be a great game because the two teams are very similar."
Indeed, the Hawks and Eagles share a very similar look, especially on offense, where both team have shown flashes of not only being very explosive, but also very balanced.
Mill Creek averages 206.5 yards per game on the ground, led by Jacorey Lewis, Carter Governale and John Russ, while Russ has been quite efficient in the air, completing 62.7 percent of his passes for an average of 146.5 yards per game, many to Lewis and Matt Pursell.
Collins Hill, meanwhile, boasts one of the county's top running backs in Jordan Parker. Brett Sheehan has been leading the passing game lately by getting several receivers like Nick England and Tevin Holliday involved. But Eagles coach Kevin Reach is hopeful to get the former going better tonight after his team was held somewhat in check in last week's 28-27 loss to Peachtree Ridge.
"Jordan's had three games over 100 yards and two over 200 yards this year," Reach pointed out. "We've got to get him back to getting his rushing yards and attempts. Peachtree Ridge did a good job of limiting him last week. We've just got to stick to our game plan, but I'm excited about the game, and I think our kids are up to the challenge.
"Mill Creek's defensive front is as good as anyone's in the region. They're big and they run to the ball well. It will be a challenge to block the men in the middle."
Jarvis agrees defensive aggression and intensity will be a key for both teams tonight, and he hopes the Hawks will get a boost in that area with the possible return to the lineup of safety Evan Cavaliere, who missed last week's 59-0 win over Meadowcreek after being injured the previous week in a loss to Norcross.
But just as much as being at full strength, Jarvis is hopeful last week's win has the Hawks' confidence and swagger back by ending a two-game losing streak after they had won their first four games.
"I'm excited about the opportunity because I've seen progress (in the last week)," Jarvis said. "I think it showed up in the second half against Norcross. (The players) fought their rear ends off.
"Every Friday night is different, and our goal is to push them to continue that progress."
For Reach and the Eagles, progress may best manifest itself in putting a full 48 minutes together, and especially finishing strong after letting a lead slip away against Peachtree Ridge.
"Our defense has played great sometimes (this season)," Reach said. "For three and a half quarters against Peachtree Ridge, we were lights out. We've got to learn how to finish Against Mill Creek, we've got to finish strong."