North Gwinnett wide receiver Nate Brown (8) cuts back across the field for a touchdown against Collins Hill’s Jordan Bertrand (24) and Rhyan England (7) during a game earlier this season. (Photo: Karl L. Moore)
North Gwinnett relied on a backup quarterback last year to beat Peachtree Ridge. The Bulldogs may need to do that again Friday night.
North quarterback Hayden Sphire, who was injured two weeks ago, is questionable for Friday’s game against Suwanee rival Peachtree Ridge.
“It will be a game-time decision,” North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire said. “We won’t know until then. He’s progressing, but I prefer to go with the medical people’s opinion.”
Hayden Sphire led North to a 24-20 victory over Peachtree Ridge last year when starter Michael Haynes was out. Sphire took the reins as the starting QB this year and was one of the state’s top passers, leading the Bulldogs to a No. 1 ranking. Then Sphire was injured against Collins Hill and North lost 53-28.
“Last year, their quarterback was hurt and didn’t play. Hayden came in for them and got the win,” Peachtree Ridge head coach Mark Fleetwood said. “We have to prepare for the best quarterback we’ve seen all year.”
Now the Bulldogs may have to rely on backup QB John Urzua to try and win their fourth region title in five years.
“Just from the neighborhood rivalry, it’s a huge deal for the kids and the community,” Bob Sphire said. “The beauty of it is we’re still in the playoffs. This game is important for bigger goals.”
If North, Collins Hill and Norcross win, that will create a three-way tie for first place in the region. A coin flip will determine the playoff seeding.
A North Gwinnett loss and the Bulldogs would be the No. 4 seed in the playoffs. North has never finished lower than No. 2 in the region under Sphire.
Peachtree Ridge sits in the No. 4 spot in the region, but can move to No. 3 with a win over North.
“It’s a really big game,” Fleetwood said. “North has controlled this rivalry. We got close last year, but lost.”
If a neighborhood rivalry with playoff seeding on the line and one of the state’s top passers questionable wasn’t enough drama, this should help.
Peachtree Ridge’s offensive coordinator Chuck Allen and defensive coordinator Phillip Hale are former North assistants under Bob Sphire. Allen played for Sphire in Kentucky and coached with him in the Bluegrass State and at North. Hale was the secondary coach on North’s 2007 state runner-up team.
“It’s got an interesting flavor to it,” Bob Sphire said. “They are familiar with our system.”
Urzua made his first varsity start last week against Mountain View and was 11 of 13 passing for 170 yards with three touchdowns. He was aided by running back C.J. Leggett, who rushed for 191 yards and two TDs. Urzua threw one of his touchdowns to Nate Brown, a Missouri commitment with a touchdown catch in every game this year.
“It was good for us to get a win and to get a significant win,” said Bob Sphire, who got his 100th career win in Georgia. “It gave John a chance to get more comfortable.”
Peachtree Ridge began the year 5-0, but has lost two of its last four games. Both losses have come when the Lions let fourth-quarter leads slip away.
“I think the big thing going into the fourth quarter is you want to have a chance. We have to finish the drill,” Fleetwood said.
Running back Jordan Ellis, a Virginia commitment, is the county’s leading rusher. The emergence of quarterback Chance Thrasher has allowed Ellis to rush for 1,200 yards this season. Thrasher has thrown for 1,754 yards and 14 touchdowns.
“They can spread the field with some extremely talented players,” Bob Sphire said. “You can’t load the box. The running game in a system like that is going to have a field day.”
That may be a concern for a North defense that has allowed 47 and 53 points in two of the last four games.
“I look forward to the great opportunity,” Fleetwood said. “Our goal is to be the three seed and not the four.”
Peachtree Ridge Lions (7-AAAAAA)
Coach: Mark Fleetwood
Record: 7-2, 5-2, region
Last week: Beat Meadowcreek 47-0
North Gwinnett Bulldogs (7-AAAAAA)
Coach: Bob Sphire
Record: 8-1, 6-1 region
Last week: Beat Mountain View. 40-7
Last meeting: North Gwinnett won 24-20 last year
When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
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