Archer’s K.J. Parmer (14) runs for a touchdown after making a catch against Grayson earlier this season. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)
Topically, Friday night is a battle of opposites.
On one sideline, tradition-rich North Gwinnett saunters into Lawrenceville with a history in big games. These Bulldogs, even the youngest of them, know the stakes of Class AAAAAA playoff games and carry in their minds a history of success in these games.
Then there is the host Archer, unbeaten, yet unproven. The Tigers won their first playoff game in school history last week. North Gwinnett last missed the playoffs in 2005. Archer High School didn’t have blueprints that year.
All of that is true, yet none of it matters.
“They have arrived,” North Gwinnett head coach Bob Sphire said of Archer. “That’s established. They’ve been winning now. All they understand is winning. The expectation day-in, day-out, week-in, week-out, they expect to win. They are playing to win.”
This isn’t Archer’s first trip to the playoffs, two seasons ago, the Tigers snuck in and faced this same North Gwinnett program. The Bulldogs swatted the growing program with a 49-3 drubbing.
“That game has no bearing on this football team,” Archer head coach Andy Dyer said.
Dyer came to Archer as the doors opened. He remembers those early seasons, preaching to his young teams to believe they would win; not could, but would. Not until Week 2 of this season did Dyer believe he finally imbued his team with that would-win belief.
With the Tigers trailing by three, they brought out the field goal team to tie the game. The snap failed and K.J. Parmer was left to scramble. He threw a touchdown pass to give the Tigers win No. 2 of 11 so far.
“That put them over the top, mentally,” Dyer said. “It was like, ‘Hey, we can win these games.’”
That is the Archer team hosting North Gwinnett, not the wide-eyed youngsters of two years ago. Even Sphire sees it.
“(Dyer) has continued to bring them along (from two years ago) and they can compete with anybody in the state,” Sphire said. “I could not be more impressed with how he has built that thing with the right kind of a foundation and really put together a first-class program.”
Sphire understands the challenges of building a program, has suffered the pitfalls of steeper-than-expected learning curves. But he sees no more curve in the Tigers. To either coach, the easy story lacks the subtleties coaches see in each matchup.
“Winning is not new to them at this stage,” Sphire said. “You can see the expectations and the swagger they play with. They are a program. They are not just a football team having a good season.”
A program, just like North.
The Bulldogs advanced to the second round with a win over Milton, riding the return of quarterback Hayden Sphire, who will finish out the season with his leg injury smarting on every play.
“He’s just going to be in tremendous pain until this season is over and he can get off of it,” said Bob Sphire, who doubles as Hayden’s father. “He knows he’s got to go.”
North brings plenty of other weapons, be it running back C.J. Leggett or the receiving attack of Nate Brown, Almonzo Brown and Caleb Scott. But Dyer’s approach, as always, remains internal.
“They are unbelievable. It’s the best football that we’ve seen,” Dyer said. “We are not worried about them, we are worried about us. Our job is to do what we do and do it well. If we do that we’ll be fine.”
With Gabe Tiller under center and his receiving duo of Parmer and Kyle Davis, Archer also has plenty of weapons, including running back Randy Nails, who is closing in on 1,000 yards for the season.
“(Archer) has a lot of creativity in what they are doing,” Sphire said.
Really, that’s what this game offers, two strong teams, no matter the years propelling them to this point.
“We are just trying to see how many (wins) we can pull off,” Dyer said.
North Gwinnett Bulldogs (7-AAAAAA)
Coach: Bob Sphire
Last week: Beat Milton 34-3
Archer Tigers (8-AAAAAA)
Coach: Andy Dyer
Last week: Beat North Forsyth 34-7
Last meeting: North Gwinnett won 49-3 in 2001
Directions to Archer High School: From Ga. Hwy. 316, go east to Ga. 20 and turn right toward Lawrenceville. Continue as Ga. 20 turns into Jackson Street and New Hope Road. School is on the right.