ATLANTA – For North Gwinnett fans, the storyline may have felt all too familiar.
Another tremendous season culminated in their 10th consecutive trip to the playoffs, and their second run to the state finals, but no state championship in the end.
“All the credit goes to Norcross,” North head coach Bob Sphire said. “They have tremendous players who just made some big plays and they took advantage of their opportunities.”
However, while the end result was the same, how the Bulldogs got there was anything but ordinary.
North started the season off with a bang, defeating state powerhouse Camden County 34-14 in the Corky Kell Classic at the Georgia Dome. The Bulldogs followed that up with a 35-0 drubbing of 2011 state champion Grayson.
Meanwhile, Norcross started the year as the favorite to repeat as state champion. It was ranked nationally and started the year off with a chance to send a statement to the Region 7-AAAAAA, the state and the nation against Booker T. Washington. Instead, the Blue Devils were throttled 55-0, and two weeks later North established that it was the team to beat in the region with a convincing 36-17 win over Norcross.
After a couple more big wins over region foes, North’s season changed. The dominating victories were replaced with miraculous comebacks.
Trailing Mill Creek by 19 points with six minutes left, the Bulldogs scored 29 points in the fourth quarter to win 50-47. After a misstep vs. Collins Hill cost North the outright region title, the playoffs began with a 34-3 win over Milton, but from there on out the road would be anything but easy for the Bulldogs.
Next came a matchup against Region 8-AAAAAA champion Archer. North overcame a halftime deficit in the third quarter, only to see Archer tie the game and need a field goal to win with seven seconds remaining.
Then in the quarterfinals against Hillgrove, another thrilling finish went North’s way. After taking a seven-point lead into halftime, North faltered and saw Hillgrove score 17 unanswered points to secure a 10-point lead with 11 minutes remaining. The Bulldogs never panicked, and with just over a minute to play Hayden Sphire found Daniel Imatorbhebhe in the end zone to cap a second consecutive come from behind win.
While fourth-quarter heroics weren’t necessary to overcome McEachern in the semifinal, the Bulldogs did trail 7-0 early. Three straight playoff victories, and in each North had to rally after falling behind.
The Bulldogs, who won four straight road playoff games to reach the title game, seemed destined to finally get over the hump. But they fell short against rival Norcross.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my team,” Sphire said. “We played a very tough schedule and they competed every game. We were in every game we played and had to overcome so much to get to this point.”
There would be no comeback for the Bulldogs on Saturday night in the Georgia Dome — the Norcross defense made sure of that. But that doesn’t change what happened along the way.
C.J. Leggett’s performance throughout the playoffs was nothing short of phenomenal as he ran for 856 yards and nine touchdowns through the five games. Quarterback Hayden Sphire, while fighting through debilitating pain throughout the playoffs, showed determination and grit necessary to lead his team to victory after victory.
And finally there is Carter Cross, the linebacker whose stature may be small, but whose courage and leadership can be matched by few. Dante Sawyer made a big interception in the finals and Bobby Young created two turnovers at the goal line in the championship game to stave off two Norcross drives.
Those are just a few of the examples of what set this North Gwinnett team apart.
So while the end result may feel all too familiar for North Gwinnett fans, the journey was anything but.
“This team never quit,” Sphire said. “They were a first class football team the entire year and I can’t say enough about them.”