NORCROSS AT NORTH
Norcross Blue Devils (7-AAAAAA)
Coach: Keith Maloof
Last week: Beat Parkview 20-0
North Gwinnett Bulldogs (7-AAAAAA)
Coach: Bob Sphire
Last week: Had a bye
Last meeting: North Gwinnett won 29-22 last season
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.
2011: North Gwinnett 29, Norcross 22
2010: North Gwinnett 38, Norcross 0
2009: North Gwinnett 26, Norcross 16
2008: North Gwinnett 33, Norcross 19
2007: Norcross 24, North Gwinnett 14
2006: Norcross 31, North Gwinnett 10
2005: North Gwinnett 24, Norcross 21
2004: Norcross 18, North Gwinnett 15
2003: Norcross 31, North Gwinnett 24
The first four years Bob Sphire was the head coach at North Gwinnett, his team played for the region championship in the final game of the regular season.
The Bulldogs lost the first three seasons in the big game before finally bringing home the region crown in 2009.
North hasn't released its grasp on the region title since it broke through. The Bulldogs have won three straight region crowns and 22 consecutive region games.
They'll begin their title defense Friday night against No. 7-ranked Norcross in the region opener for both teams. If a different team is going to win the region title, they'll have to knock off the No. 4 Bulldogs first.
"They deserved it," Norcross head coach Keith Maloof said of North's accolades. "They deserve the right to say that."
North and Norcross were the front-runners for the region title in the preseason. They are both state ranked and undefeated. From a fans perspective, it's the de facto region title. But the winner of Friday's game won't be crowned champs right away. There are still seven region games left on the schedule.
"Oh good lord, there's a lot of football to be played in this region," Sphire said. "Every one is important."
Before North went on its tear in the region, Norcross was the darling of Region 7.
Norcross won a pair of region titles in 2006 and 2007 with wins over North Gwinnett in the final regular season game. Since then the Blue Devils have dropped the last four meetings to the Bulldogs.
The Blue Devils appeared to have reversed that trend last year when they had a 22-0 fourth-quarter lead. North Gwinnett stormed back to win 29-22.
"This is this year's team," Maloof said. "I think that game is mentioned by both teams, but that was last year's team. We've got to build our own identity with this team."
Norcross was 5-0 last year before the North game and finished with an 8-3 record and a first-round playoff loss. The Blue Devils returned 14 starters from that team, which has Sphire concerned.
"Where do I start?," Sphire said with a laugh. "They have great speed on defense. They are good at every position. They've got two NFL-looking defensive ends, good linebackers and two Division I-looking corners. Then you turn to offense, they've got guys that can go 80 yards on every play."
Norcross has the state's No. 1 rated running back in Alvin Kamara. The senior injured his ankle in last week's game against Parkview and only had 25 yards rushing.
"He's fine," Maloof said. "He'll play."
Myles Autry picked up the slack by rushing for 76 yards and had a 72-yard punt return for a TD and added a touchdown catch. Quarterback Joseph Wilber threw for 120 yards and two TDs. Trey Smith was his top receiver with five catches for 65 yards and a score.
"We've played a couple of teams with explosive players, but I don't think it's quite to this degree," Sphire said.
North's defense kept them in the game against previously state ranked Colquitt County, allowing the Bulldogs to win on a last-second field goal.
The unit recorded a 38-0 shutout over South Carolina's A.C. Flora two weeks ago.
"They look really good on defense," Maloof said. "Their front seven are very athletic."
The big concern for North is on offense. Senior Michael Haynes will be making his third career start at quarterback. He's shined in the first two games, throwing for 341 yards and three touchdowns, but will have a banged up offensive line protecting him.
"He's running as well as anyone they've had (at quarterback)," Maloof said. "The only thing he doesn't have is the experience."
Tonight's game won't officially decide the region champion, but whoever comes out on top has to like their chances the rest of the season.
"It's not like it's the last game of the season and we're battling for the region title," Maloof said. "There's still a lot of football left."