North Gwinnett’s Dante Sawyer (95) hits McEachern’s Taj Griffin (7) during last week’s game. (Photo: Craig Cappy)
From a geographic standpoint, only 14 miles, primarily along Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, separate Norcross and North Gwinnett high schools.
Chronologically speaking, it has been 13 weeks and one day since the two schools’ football teams have played each other.
But as far both schools’ head coaches are concerned, both those differences pale in comparison to what separates the way the No. 3 state-ranked Blue Devils and the fourth-ranked Bulldogs from the way they were playing that September night as they prepare for tonight’s rematch in the Class AAAAAA state championship game.
“What’s it been — 12 or 13 weeks?” asked North coach Bob Sphire about how long it’s been since his Bulldogs won 36-17 at Norcross on Sept. 13. “It was 11 games ago, and 11 games is a whole season. It’s a lifetime to a high school football player.”
True, both the Bulldogs (13-1) and Blue Devils (12-2) expected to see a much different opponent from the first meeting when they kick off at approximately 8:30 tonight at the Georgia Dome.
And both believe that not only is their opponent better than they were three-plus months ago, but that they are, as well.
“I just know that we’re playing a lot better (than in the first meeting), and they’re playing better now,” Norcross coach Keith Maloof said. “It’s just a process. When a team is as good as these two teams are, you know they’re going to (play) better. And our region has put us in position to do what we’ve done. We’re both very fortunate to be here.”
And both figure to be better in key areas of the game.
For Norcross, the biggest improvement throughout the season has been the defense, where stars like college prospects Lorenzo Carter, Kevin Mouhon, Jaquan Frazier and Jordan Noil have jelled with less-heralded, but equally important, cogs like Warren McWilliams and Jean-Baptiste Kouassi to form a cohesive unit.
After giving up 98 points in its first three games — including the loss to North — Norcross has allowed just 84 in the 11 games since.
And having seen the Blue Devils on film, that cohesiveness and improvement has not gone unnoticed by the Bulldogs.
“We feel like they’re a lot more aggressive in their blitzes,” North’s Missouri-bound senior receiver Nate Brown said. “And they’re getting a feel for their team defense. … Honestly, I don’t try to pay much attention to (the first game), given how early (in the season) it was. Both teams have made a number of changes since then.”
North’s biggest change since the opening meeting is on offense.
While the Bulldogs did much of their damage in the first game in the air — with Hayden Sphire throwing for 256 yards and three touchdowns, all of them to Brown — they have become much more balanced as the season has progressed.
That is particularly true in the postseason, with running back C.J. Leggett rushing for 750 yards and nine TDs in four playoff games to give North a much-more balanced attack.
With Leggett having been hampered by turf toe injury in the early win over Norcross, Maloof expects the senior power back to play a much bigger role tonight.
“Leggett’s always been a good running back,” Maloof said. “He was a good running back when he was at Chattahoochee and we saw him play. But now you add him in, and (North) has the screen game going and the vertical (passing) game going. They’re a complete package.”
But one thing that will likely remain the same from the earlier clash — and pretty much every game — between North and Norcross is the passion.
As contenders pretty much every season in Region 7-AAAAAA, and with as much county pride as their is within each program, tonight’s game figures to be very intense.
Add in the stakes of a state title — and for Norcross, the chance to repeat as champions — and that intensity figures to increase even further.
“Both these teams have been in so many big settings,” Sphire said. “(The county and region rivalry) does add some extra spice to it. But the thing is, … the respect that is involved between the two programs … there’s obviously respect they had for each other in that first game. And it’s a relationship that’s developed into a friendship between Bob Sphire and Keith Maloof.
“But I know this, and Keith’s probably just like me. There’s nothing I wanted more when we were playing in the backyard than to beat my best friend one on one. So, I think there’s an added element or added spice to it, no question about it.”
And along with the intensity, there is also plenty of confidence from both camps, especially from Norcross, which is eager to reverse its early loss to North.
“They got us before we hit our stride,” Blue Devils quarterback A.J. Bush said. “Not to take anything away from (North) because they’re a great team. But we’re really rolling right now.
“We just have to execute, minimize turnovers and minimize penalties. The biggest thing is we can’t beat ourselves. … If we can execute and get positive yards, we’ll be OK.”