Staff Photo: John Bohn -- Dacula quarterback Brandon Goodson (8) throws the ball during the first half against Mill Creek in a football game played during the 2011 season.
DACULA FALCONS (8-AAAAAA)
• Coach: Jared Zito
• 2011 Record: 9-4
• Team page
MILL CREEK HAWKS (7-AAAAAA)
• Coach: Shannon Jarvis
• 2011 Record: 5-5
• Last meeting: Mill Creek won 35-27 last season
• Team page
• Stadium information
• Series history:
2011 — Mill Creek 35, Dacula 27
2010 — Dacula 34, Mill Creek 31
2009 — Dacula 27, Mill Creek 23
2008 — Mill Creek 23, Dacula 15
2007 — Mill Creek 10, Dacula 7
2006 — Dacula 34, Mill Creek 0
Though only in its seventh year, the annual Mill Creek-Dacula non-region matchup has become one of Gwinnett County's hottest high school football rivalries.
Aside from the neighboring proximity of the two schools -- Mill Creek drew primarily from Dacula's attendance cluster when it opened in 2004 -- and similar birds of prey mascots, the series between the two teams has been characterized by ultra-competitive games.
The last five of the first six meetings between the two teams have been decided by eight points or less, and both head coaches expect another close one when the Hawks and Falcons kick off the 2012 season Friday at Mill Creek Community Stadium.
"One good thing is that it motivates your kids right at the start," Dacula coach Jared Zito said. "And going up against a good Region 7 (AAAAAA) opponent, it gives you a chance to see how you measure up."
On paper, the two teams seem to measure up fairly evenly with each other for Friday's game, with both the visiting Falcons (9-4 a year ago) and host Hawks (5-5 last season) returning a solid core of experienced players, while at the same time relying on newcomers in key areas.
"Both teams have young players getting their first varsity experience," Mill Creek coach Shannon Jarvis said. "Sometimes, you find out when everybody else does how those kids are going to react to the atmosphere (of a rivalry game). It provides an opportunity for the kids to show they're ready to do it, and we're looking forward to giving them that opportunity."
Dacula must replace 2011 Daily Post Offensive Player of the Year Rocky Capobianco, as well as a host of starters on defense, but do return dynamic playmakers like Marcus Cox, Zentaviaus Cobb and B.J. Clay.
By comparison, Mill Creek will have to fill holes created by losses of important pieces from last year like John Russ to graduation and Carter Governale to a preseason knee injury, but also return players who can make things happen like Division I defensive tackle prospect Kelsey Griffin and running back Jacorey Lewis.
The biggest difference in experience between the two teams is probably at quarterback, where the Falcons have the luxury of bringing back senior Brandon Goodson, who shared time with Capobianco as the starter last year, while the Hawks will depend on sophomore Daniel David to grow up in a hurry.
"Since last year, Brandon's done nothing but get better and better," Zito said of Goodson. "He almost puts too much pressure on himself sometimes because he's such a perfectionist, but he's learned with experience to take a breath and stay poised.
"Any quarterback is going to be nervous (in a game like this). Every player will be nervous. This will be (David's) first time starting and maybe he'll be a little more nervous. But from what I've seen during passing league (this summer) and in (Mill Creek's preseason) scrimmage against Parkview, he's a special 10th-grader. He's got good poise, good accuracy and he looks pretty tough. We'll have to play well on defense to rattle him."
In fact, defensive pressure towards the opposing offense could be a big key for each team Friday, particularly during the early going.
It was definitely a factor for Mill Creek last year after the Hawks built up a 28-6 halftime lead before holding on for 35-27 win.
Such a slow start is something Zito said his Falcons can ill afford again this year.
"Whether it was a new team or a whole new coaching staff or whatever excuse you want to come up with, in the first half last year, we didn't show up," Zito said. "The biggest thing we emphasized to the kids is that we have to play four quarters and don't make it a situation where we have to scratch and claw just to get back into the game."
But even as much as this game means to the communities of each school, both coaches point out that it's a important for their teams to look at the big picture even if they come up short.
And they have a point, since the loser of this game has gone on to advance to the quarterfinals of the state playoffs each of the last two years.
"The losers the last two years have ended up having pretty good playoff runs," Jarvis said. "You just have to take it in perspective and move on."