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North ready for rising Johns Creek program

North Gwinnett's Caleb Scott makes a catch during the Bulldogs' game against Collins Hill earlier this season.

North Gwinnett's Caleb Scott makes a catch during the Bulldogs' game against Collins Hill earlier this season.

Johns Creek at North Gwinnett

Johns Creek Gladiators (6-AAAAAA)

Coach: Mike Cloy

Record: 8-2

Last week: Lost to Alpharetta 35-32

North Gwinnett Bulldogs (7-AAAAAA)

Coach: Bob Sphire

Record: 9-1

Last week: Beat Peachtree Ridge 24-20

When: Today, 7:30 p.m.

Last meeting: First meeting

Directions to North Gwinnett High School: From I-85, go west on Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road until it becomes Suwanee Dam Road. School is on the right

Since Bob Sphire took over as North Gwinnett's head coach, a playoff appearance has been second nature.

The Bulldogs are in the postseason for the seventh straight year and each season they've won their first-round playoff game. Their last five first-round games have been won by an average of 39 points.

It might not be as easy of a first-round game tonight.

The Bulldogs will host one of the state's young rising programs in Johns Creek.

"I've seen enough of Johns Creek to know not to take this game for granted," Sphire said. "We would be fools to look past them."

Johns Creek, which is located in North Fulton County, is an eight-mile trip down Peachtree Industrial Blvd. The Gladiators are in their fourth year of existence and are making their second playoff appearance. They reached the Class AAA playoffs a year ago and lost to Flowery Branch on a Hail Mary pass as time expired.

"We traded video with them and I'm extremely impressed," Sphire said. "They are a great football team. They know how to execute and are hard-nosed."

Johns Creek has 25 seniors on its 47-man varsity roster. The Gladiators played a seven-game varsity schedule their first year, which included a pair of losses to Mountain View. They went 4-6 in year two and reached the playoffs with a 9-2 record last year.

"Their guys have been playing varsity since their ninth-grade year," Sphire said. "They have been through the fire together. They've taken their lumps, but have put it together."

Johns Creek runs its offense out of the shotgun and dual threat quarterback Skye Overton makes the offense click. The four-year starter has thrown for 1,302 yards with 7 TDs and 7 INTs. The senior also has 894 yards rushing and 14 TDs.

"Their quarterback is the key," Sphire said. "He's a competitor and a great decision maker."

Brandon Fortin, Ben Deck, Chase Solomon and Andrew Szambelan are the team's top receivers.Running back Solomon leads the team in rushing with 983 yards and 12 TDs. He's had five 100-yard rushing games this season

"To be successful in Georgia 6A football, it starts with being able to the run and they do it," Sphire said. "You can't move them. I don't see anyone moving the ball on them."

Linebacker Tommy Welch leads the team in tackles with 74 and sophomore Turner Fortin has 67 stops. Matt Gorst, Sam Arrington and Cody Hardage have combined for 16.5 sacks this year.

"They are very difficult to run the football on their defensive front," Sphire said.

North has its own dual threat QB in Michael Haynes. The senior has thrown for 1,760 yards and 21 TDs. He has 618 yards rushing and three scores.

"They are very talented and very well coached," Johns Creek head coach Mike Cloy said. "They are active on defense. They have good players that get after you."

North has won 10 or more games every year under Sphire, but needs a victory over Johns Creek to keep that streak alive.

North was down 17-0 to Peachtree Ridge in the second quarter last week before rallying to win 24-20. Hayden Sphire threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Caleb Scott with 31 seconds left in the game for the win. It was the third time this year North has come back in the second half to win.

Sphire knows his team can't afford another slow start this week against a talented Johns Creek team.

"I look at this game and we've got to beat these guys," Sphire said. "Everyone looks at it the other way. We have to beat them."

The winner will play the Grayson vs. Wheeler winner in the second round.

"We are anxious to see how we fit against them," Cloy said. "It would be a real stepping stone."