North Gwinnett’s Torron Murray (19) follows his blockers returning a kickoff against the Mill Creek defense during the game earlier this season. (Photo: Karl L. Moore)
When it’s a game this big, even the coaches can’t obfuscate. Well, not too much.
“We respect our opponent every week,” North Gwinnett coach Bob Sphire said, “but we are getting ready to go into Week 8. We all kind of know how it is starting to shake out. If you are a true competitor these are the weeks that validate all the work you put in in January, you put in in February.”
“This is a huge game,” Collins Hill head coach Kevin Reach said. “I think we’ve played well to get us in this position. This is a game, we win this game it will keep us going to where we want to be and that’s to win a region championship.”
Unbeaten North remains in control of Region 7-AAAAAA, but with just one region loss to Norcross, the Eagles have at least the opportunity to shake up the top of the region with a win on Friday. They head to Suwanee as healthy as they’ve been all season and coming off a restful rout of Meadowcreek.
Christian Harris, the Duke-bound offensive lineman, returns full strength after breaking his leg in the preseason and Franky Filto returns to his natural center position after recovering from a broken hand.
“It’s awesome we get to see the whole package,” Sphire said of Collins Hill’s health. “Sometimes that’s how things work out.”
North is as healthy as can be as well, Sphire said and the team appears to be functioning as well as ever, scoring more than 40 points each of the past four weeks. With an attack that features Nate Brown, Caleb Scott and Almonzo Brown catching passes from quarterback Hayden Sphire and the threat of running back C.J. Leggett, there is not much weakness in the Bulldogs’ offense.
But as Collins Hill’s improved each week, its defense remains its most consistent force. Led by players like Quentin Jones in the secondary, linebackers Trevahn Sensabaugh and Joseph Park and nose tackle Ben Yarn the Eagles have allowed more than 20 points just twice this season.
“I think defensively we’ve played well all year,” Reach said. “I think we’ve got to get to the Sphire boy. We can’t let him sit back there or he’ll pick us apart. They have a lot of big weapons.”
Beyond those players are an offensive line with players like Drequz Smith and Paul Hirschman, who Sphire says are some of the many players having silent impacts and propping up his standout playmakers.
And Collins Hill is not without its share of threats. Players like quarterback Tyler Herman and running back Tyler Henderson.
“You can’t lighten the run box,” Sphire said of facing Collins Hill. “It opens things up for everybody if you aren’t loaded up to stop the run with these guys. They can make hay with the running back all night long. It certainly makes you stay honest.”
Honesty, or truth, comes from games like this. Most likely both teams have extra football in the future, making the pressure different than the must-win playoffs but for Collins Hill and North Gwinnett this game is a measuring moment.
“Nobody puts in all that work to finish second,” Sphire said. “No one puts in all that work to get to a week like this and not play to win.”
“It’s what I was telling them yesterday, ‘This is why you started playing football when you were 6, 7 years old, for games like this,’” Reach said. “It is a big game and they are a great football team. I like our chances.”
Collins Hill Eagles (7-AAAAAA)
Coach: Kevin Reach
Record: 6-1, 4-1 region
Last week: Beat Meadowcreek 68-0
North Gwinnett Bulldogs (7-AAAAAA)
Coach: Bob Sphire
Record: 7-0, 5-0 region
Last week: Beat Habersham Central 41-0
Last meeting: North Gwinnett won 38-24 last year.
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.
2012: North Gwinnett 34, Collins Hill 28
2011: North Gwinnett 43, Collins Hill 10
2010: North Gwinnett 33, Collins Hill 20
2007: North Gwinnett 24, Collins Hill 3
2006: North Gwinnett 20, Collins Hill 6
2005: Collins Hill 26, North Gwinnett 21
2004: North Gwinnett 23, Collins Hill 21
2003: Collins Hill 17, North Gwinnett 7
2002: North Gwinnett 34, Collins Hill 3
2002: North Gwinnett 18, Collins Hill 10
2001: Collins Hill 41, North Gwinnett 15
2000: Collins Hill 40, North Gwinnett 0