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HAMMOCK: Competition readies Gwinnett teams for title runs

Norcross’ Warren McWilliams (34), Myles Autry (5), Lorenzo Carter (8), Kevin Mouhon (48) and Clinton Lynch (2) celebrate with the championship trophy after defeating North Gwinnett 31-14 during the Class AAAAAA State Championship game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Saturday. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

Norcross’ Warren McWilliams (34), Myles Autry (5), Lorenzo Carter (8), Kevin Mouhon (48) and Clinton Lynch (2) celebrate with the championship trophy after defeating North Gwinnett 31-14 during the Class AAAAAA State Championship game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Saturday. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

ATLANTA — Before North Gwinnett won four straight road playoff games, before Norcross made its run to the finals and before the two football teams met in Saturday’s Class AAAAAA state championship game, both were battle-tested.

Gwinnett added another state title to its rapidly growing high school football legacy because of the talented players on the field, but also because of the competitive county where they play. The Bulldogs and Blue Devils faced tough matchups weekly and played in the state’s most challenging region, 7-AAAAAA.

It’s why Gwinnett football sits where it is at the moment — on a run of four straight state championships in Georgia’s largest classification.

“The success Gwinnett teams have had not just this season but in years past is a testament to the quality of play in our county week in and week out,” Mill Creek head coach Shannon Jarvis said moments before the state finals kicked off late Saturday night. “The margin for error is very small and there is a fine line between winning and losing in our region. That fine line drives all programs in our county to seek continual improvement, which in turn creates tremendous depth in quality of play.”

North’s composure in close games, and the ability to turn those tense matchups into victories, was honed in the regular season. The Bulldogs scheduled another Gwinnett foe, Grayson, for its non-region game and then built confidence with a miraculous rally over Jarvis’ Mill Creek team. In that victory, they turned a 19-point deficit with less than 6:30 remaining into a stunning 50-47.

The tight finishes continued into the postseason, where North won a pair of thrillers back-to-back over Archer (34-32) and Hillgrove (35-31) in the second round and quarterfinals. Archer, another Gwinnett team, was AAAAAA’s last unbeaten before losing a heartbreaker to North.

“Gwinnett football is the most competitive high school football in the country,” Archer head coach Andy Dyer said Saturday night, well aware that his team could have been playing in the Georgia Dome instead of North.

Instead, Archer was one of the building blocks in North’s season, a confidence boost on the way to the title game.

Norcross had plenty of those, too.

The Blue Devils took their lumps and learned their lessons early, falling to Booker T. Washington and North as part of a 1-2 start. They also scheduled a non-region foe from Gwinnett, Parkview, lining up a schedule that prepared them for what was to come.

When virtually every game on the schedule is a test, there is no time to relax. It takes a true bye week for any Gwinnett coaching staff to enjoy any sort of real respite.

That said, Norcross passed 11 consecutive tests after a Sept. 13 loss to North to earn a spot in Saturday’s title matchup. There were a few close wins along the way — 27-13 over Mill Creek and 24-20 over Peachtree Ridge — that readied it for a tight semifinal win over Colquitt County.

The Blue Devils held Colquitt’s high-powered offense to a trio of field goals, grinding out a 14-9 victory to reach their second straight state championship game.

The Gwinnett-heavy schedule certainly factored into getting Norcross and North ready for a shot at the championship, something both veteran head coaches — Keith Maloof of Norcross and Bob Sphire of North — will attest to. Gwinnett teams go into every playoff game expecting to win and in many cases their biggest obstacle to a state championship is another team from their home county.

That was the case Saturday night in the AAAAAA finals.

It was the culmination of a championship season, not just for the finalists, but also for Gwinnett County, whose teams went 16-7 in the AAAAAA playoffs while non-Gwinnett teams went 15-24. Four of those seven Gwinnett losses were inflicted by other Gwinnett teams.

“The development of athletes from the youth leagues on up, schemes, physicality and commitment to excellence is why Gwinnett football remains on the forefront nationally in high school football,” Jarvis said.

Will Hammock can be reached via email at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His regular column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock.