North Gwinnett’s C.J. Leggett (7) carries the ball past Peachtree Ridge’s Aaron Harris (44) during last week’s game. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
A flip of a coin. That was it.
That’s all it took to determine whether North Gwinnett was playing its first round state playoff game at home or on the road.
It didn’t matter that the Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 in the state for nearly two months. Or that they had a 9-1 record.
A three-way tie for first place in the region after last Friday’s final game of the regular season meant a coin flip would decide the seeding for the region’s playoff teams.
North Gwinnett lost.
So for the first time in eight years under head coach Bob Sphire, North Gwinnett is beginning the playoffs on the road. And barring some kind of upset, the Bulldogs will play all of their playoff games away from home, beginning Friday at Milton.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing on the road,” Sphire said. “I’m just tickled to be in the playoffs.”
North Gwinnett has never lost a first-round playoff game under Sphire, but that streak will be tested against a talented Milton squad. The Eagles began the year 5-0, then lost to Etowah and Lassiter before winning their last three games. Milton has never won a playoff game in the school’s 60-plus year football history.
“This game is very dangerous,” Sphire said. “They hang their hat on defense and have a strong running game. That’s their formula and they are really good at it.”
The Eagles feature a pair of running backs in Chad Toliver and Micco Brisker that can pound the ball up the middle or get to the edge.
“What they’ve got is a thunder and lightning deal,” Sphire said. “They have one kid that is a award winning weightlifter. The other runs a legit 4.3 40.”
North’s defense gave up 100 points in three games, including a 53-28 loss to Collins Hill that forced the three-way tie in the region. The Bulldogs’ defense had a strong showing in last week’s win over Peachtree Ridge, holding running back Jordan Ellis, a Virginia commitment, to just 61 yards.
Linebacker Carter Cross also had a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown and a sack, while Dante Sawyer caused two fumbles and Anree Saint-Amour had a sack.
“We really did a good job stopping the run against Peachtree Ridge,” Sphire said. “But they are a more downhill running team. Milton is more stretch running plays.”
Backup quarterback John Urzua has started the last two games for injured started Hayden Sphire. Urzua will likely play again as Hayden Sphire’s status is still uncertain for Friday’s game.
“He’s easing along daily. It will be a game-time decision,” Sphire said.
It might not matter who is playing quarterback for North if running back C.J. Leggett has another strong game. The senior rushed for three touchdowns in the first quarter of last week’s game and finished with 96 yards rushing. Urzua passed for 235 yards and one touchdown.
“John has done a great job. It’s great to know he’s always ready,” Sphire said.
With a win, North will have to play the winner of the Archer-North Forsyth game. Archer is the Region 8-AAAAAA champion.
“It can be done,” Sphire said of a playoff run. “Norcross had to go a tough road last year. You just have to take it one game at a time.”
NORTH GWINNETT at MILTON
North Gwinnett Bulldogs (7-AAAAAA)
Coach: Bob Sphire
Last week: Beat Peachtree Ridge 44-22
Milton Eagles (5-AAAAAA)
Coach: Howie DeCristofaro
Last week: Beat Woodstock 35-28
Last meeting: First meeting
Directions to Milton High School: Highway 120 West into Alpharetta, then make a right on Main Street. At the first light go left on Milton Avenue and school is immediately on the right