This time a year ago, Peachtree Ridge was just ready for the season to be over.
The Lions were 3-4 and headed toward their first losing season in seven years.
A 36-3 loss to eventual state champion Norcross didn’t help.
“We’re in a much different place from a year ago,” Peachtree Ridge head coach Mark Fleetwood said. “It feels a whole lot better, I can tell you that.”
Fast forward to Friday and Peachtree Ridge has a lot more to play for this year. The Lions are 6-1 and still in the hunt for the Region 7-AAAAAA crown. But they first have to get past Norcross, which has won five straight games.
“They are totally different. They’ve gone from 3-4 last year to 6-1 this year,” Norcross head coach Keith Maloof said. “So they have turned things around and are playing with a lot of confidence.”
Norcross has won five straight after starting the year 1-2. A big part of the Blue Devils’ success has been the emergence of quarterback A.J. Bush, who transferred from Milton over the summer.
“I’ve always said as the season goes on, A.J. is going to get better,” Maloof said. “It’s the same thing with Josh Boyd. The chemistry of the team is improving.”
Bush has thrown for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns this season. He passed for 194 yards and two scores last week. Running back Boyd is among the county’s leading rushers thanks to a big, experienced offensive line.
“There’s no doubt about it, they are rolling,” Fleetwood said. “They are moving the ball. It’s another great Norcross team. They are loaded with talent at every position.”
The Blue Devils’ defense has returned to its dominant form during the recent win streak. The unit has allowed just nine points in the last three games. Even more impressive, it has allowed just one touchdown in the last five games.
“Defensively, we’ve gotten much better week in and week out,” Maloof said.
Linebacker Kevin Mouhon, a Tennessee commitment, leads the county in tackles and teammate Warren McWilliams is right behind him. Defensive end Lorenzo Carter, the state’s No. 1 college recruit, has 20 tackles for loss and three sacks this year.
“It’s starts with their middle linebacker,” Fleetwood said. “Then the defensive end is a really good player. They go for the ball. It looks like they are playing as a unit.”
The group will be challenged by a talented Peachtree Ridge offense. The group is led by Jordan Ellis, a Virginia commitment. Ellis leads the county in rushing with 1,000 yards and 17 touchdowns.
“He runs hard and has a big body,” Maloof said. “He’s going to get his yards, you just have to limit the big plays.”
Ellis has a nice complement with quarterback Chance Thrasher, who has thrown for 1,483 yards and 11 touchdowns.
“With the ability to run the ball, we have had some success throwing it,” Fleetwood said. “We’ll stay with what works for us.”
Brandon Johnson, Tyler Campbell and Auburn commitment Myron Burton make for a dangerous receiver corps. Burton missed the Mountain View game two weeks ago and use last week’s bye to get healthy.
“We have to face some really good receivers this week. We’re going to have our hands full,” Maloof said.
On paper, it looks like Norcross has the advantage in Friday's game. The Blue Devils defeated Collins Hill 28-0, while Peachtree Ridge fell to Collins Hill 35-28.
Peachtree Ridge edged Mill Creek 31-30 and Norcross beat Mill Creek 27-13.
A win by Norcross and a loss by Collins Hill will lock up the No. 2 seed in the postseason, which guarantees a first-round home playoff game.
A lot can still happen for the Lions. If they win out, which includes a game at No. 1 ranked North Gwinnett in the season finale, they can win their first region title since 2008.
“We’re at a point where we control our season,” Fleetwood said. “We are playing two of the better teams in the state the last three games. We will know a lot about ourselves the next few weeks.”
Peachtree Ridge Lions (7-AAAAAA)
Coach: Mark Fleetwood
Record: 6-1, 4-1 region
Last week: Had a bye
Norcross Blue Devils (7-AAAAAA)
Coach: Keith Maloof
Record: 6-2, 5-1 region
Last week: Beat Mountain View 37-6
Last meeting: Norcross won 36-3 last year
Directions to Norcross High School: From I-85, go west on Beaver Ruin Road to Buford Highway and turn right. At the next light, turn left on Langford Drive. Cross Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and turn left on Spalding Drive. School is on the left