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Late nights, dramatic finishes highlight Corky Kell Classic

North Gwinnett captains Anree Saint-Amour (71), Mitch Hyatt (75), Jaye Stackhouse (1), and John Urzua (9) line up for the coin toss prior to the 2014 Metro PCS Corky Kell Classic game against the McEachern Indians on Saturday at Walter H Cantrell Stadium at McEachern High School in Powder Springs. (Staff Photo: David Welker)

North Gwinnett captains Anree Saint-Amour (71), Mitch Hyatt (75), Jaye Stackhouse (1), and John Urzua (9) line up for the coin toss prior to the 2014 Metro PCS Corky Kell Classic game against the McEachern Indians on Saturday at Walter H Cantrell Stadium at McEachern High School in Powder Springs. (Staff Photo: David Welker)

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Norcross’ Griffin Barker (16) runs up the field during the 2014 Metro PCS Corky Kell Classic game against the Tucker Tigers on Saturday at Walter H Cantrell Stadium at McEachern High School in Powder Springs. (Staff Photo: David Welker)

POWDER SPRINGS — For the first time in its more than two decades, the Corky Kell Classic had been expanded to include seven games over two days of competition at McEachern’s Walter Cantrell Stadium.

By the time play finally ended at 1:38 a.m. on Sunday, it had stretched out to parts of three days, with Gwinnett County’s contingent saving its best for last.

Two-time defending Class AAAAAA state champion and No. 9 state-ranked Norcross bounced back after letting a 15-point lead slip away to come up big with the clutch and score a thrilling 32-29 overtime win over No. 7 Tucker in the classic’s penultimate game.

Then No. 4 North Gwinnett engaged in perhaps one of the most memorable games in the event’s history that spilled over into the wee hours of Sunday morning. The Bulldogs eventually survived a back-and-forth shootout with top-ranked McEachern, with John Urzua’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Kyler Knudsen with nine seconds left lifting them to a dramatic 52-49 win.

Second-ranked Archer also nearly provided a dramatic victory for Gwinnett, only to have a potential game-tying score nullified by a penalty in a 21-13 loss to No. 3 (Class AAAA) Sandy Creek late on Friday.

And while Gwinnett’s other two teams in the classic suffered setbacks — No. 5 Mill Creek to second-ranked Colquitt County and Brookwood to Valdosta — it was a weekend few involved will forget.

Certainly nobody from North (1-0) will forget the Bulldogs’ win, which came after three-and-a-half hours of non-stop action that included a combined 101 points, 1,046 yards (including 490 through the air from Urzua) and seven lead changes.

It reminded coach Bob Sphire of another marathon game that he coached in that ended well after midnight.

“This one and (one) against Louisville Male (while coaching at Lexington Catholic in Kentucky) when Michael Bush was there (in the early 2000s),” Sphire recalled. “We had about a two-and-a-half-hour rain delay, and (the organizers) wanted us to go home, and we were behind, but I just felt like we were going to win, and we were like a 30-point underdog. We won a killer game just about like this. It wasn’t this late, but it was late.”

Part of the reason it was late was that it didn’t kick-off until 10 p.m., and that was, in part, because of the zany way Norcross’ game with Tucker ended after needing overtime.

The Blue Devils (1-0) had a chance to win the game regulation after getting a second-chance on a 24-yard field goal attempt by Blake Bingham when a miss was negated by a Tucker timeout called before the snap, only to have the second attempt also sail wide of the mark.

But the senior kicker redeemed himself with a 28-yard field goal in the extra frame, and J.B. Kouassi’s fumble recovery on Tucker’s overtime possession sealed the dramatic Norcross win.

However, it was more than just the win on the scoreboard that coach Keith Maloof believes his Blue Devils took out of Saturday’s action.

Several players who have patiently waited for a chance to see extensive playing time came up big on a very big stage in front of a regional cable television audience the first time out.

Nobody stood out more than quarterback Griffin Barker, who ran for 60 yards and a touchdown and went 20-for-34 for 267 yards and two scores though the air.

There were also other first-time stars, such as receiver Jared Pinkney (7-113, TD), running back Jamir Billings (122 total yards, TD rushing), linebacker Jermone Pledger (five tackles) and safety Jarett Cole (five tackles).

“It feels good,” Maloof said. “We still made a ton of mistakes, but we got off the field with the win on the last play. I’m excited for the kids. I’m excited for Griffin Barker, which may be the biggest thing we got out of (Saturday). He was able to manage the game, and defensively, we’ll get better.

“We beat a god Tucker Team. … A lot of them were on the scout team the last two or three years and were transitioning to be starters and getting their turn to be on the field.”

Still, it will be the late hours of the North games — as well as the Archer game, which started late Friday night and ended around midnight Saturday morning — that may be most remember.

That, along with the head of the day games that Mill Creek and Brookwood had to endure with the games being moved outdoor due to the unavailability of the Georgia Dome, has promoted talk about the event throughout the state.

“It was the best dang high school football game, maybe, ever played, and nobody saw it because it (ended at) 1:40 in the morning,” Sphire said with a laugh. “You know what, every team that was in this event deserved to be in it. It’s a great experience for these kids. Let them sleep in (Sunday). I know I can go to Sunday evening mass.

“I’m all about the kids. So, when kids get a chance to be in this thing, whether it’s 9 o’clock in the morning or it’s one in the morning, I think it’s a great thing. … I was whining for four months (about playing the late game Saturday), but when the heat came, I was like, ‘OK.’”