NORTH FULTON, Ga. – Alpharetta and Milton open play in the state Class AAAAAA playoffs at home Friday night, Nov. 15, against Gwinnett opponents, with Milton drawing perhaps the toughest assignment of any team in the state that will be playing at home in the first round.
The Eagles, the No. 2 seed from Region 5, will begin the playoffs against North Gwinnett, ranked among the top handful of teams in the state in AAAAAA. The Bulldogs tied for first in Region 7, but wound up with the region’s third seed after losing a coin flip.
Alpharetta, which went unbeaten in Region 6, plays South Gwinnett, the No. 4 team from Region 8, in its playoff opener.
NORTH GWINNETT at MILTON
MILTON, Ga. – The luck of the draw left the Eagles with North Gwinnett (9-1) as their first round opponent, with unbeaten Archer the likely opponent for the winner in the second round.
Howie DeCristofaro, who has guided the Eagles to the playoffs in each of his three seasons as head coach, is well aware that his team faces a huge challenge. But Milton will have home field advantage, something teams facing opponents with North Gwinnett’s credentials rarely get.
Milton has not had a home game in the playoffs since 2008, the last time the Eagles went 8-2 in the regular season. The Eagles lost that game in three overtimes, the closest they have come to a playoff victory since the early years of the school’s football program.
North Gwinnett, meanwhile, has won at least one game at state every year since 2006, reaching the championship game once and the quarterfinals four times in that stretch.
DeCristofaro said the Eagles will “just try to keep doing what we’ve done the last 14 weeks. We’re going to play our game and hopefully that will be enough. At this stage, you’re not going to try to fool anybody.”
The Bulldogs opened the season with wins over recent state champions Camden County, Grayson and Norcross. But they had two games the second half of the season when their defense was shredded, including a 53-28 loss to Collins Hill, which shared the region title with Norcross and North Gwinnett.
The 28 points was the Bulldogs’ lowest total of the season, with the team featuring an offense with four receivers DeCristofaro said “are all at least 6-foot-2.” North Gwinnett’s running game is led by senior C.J. Leggett, who began his high school career at Buford before playing the last two seasons at Chattahoochee.
Hayden Sphire, the son of the team’s head coach, is a talented quarterback, but has been sidelined the last few weeks with an ankle injury. His back-up led the team to a 44-22 win over playoff qualifier Peachtree Ridge last week, but DeCristofaro anticipates that Sphire will be back in action this week.
DeCristofaro said the Bulldogs like to blitz out of their 3-5-3 defensive alignment, which includes an “extremely good” trio of linemen.
The Eagles have gone 8-2 despite the loss of a number of Division I signees off last year’s 7-3 squad and an early season-ending injury to standout tailback Treyvon Paulk.
Speedster Chad Toliver and hard-running Micco Brisker have picked up the slack in Paulk’s absence, with Toliver proving to be a major threat as a kick returner. Austin McLeod has efficiently operated the Milton offense, with the Eagles’ strong offensive line expected to get a boost from the return of Ernest Dye, who has missed the last two games.
Linebacker Christian Keeney is likely to return to the defense, which has played well except for a brief mid-season letdown, but will likely face its toughest challenge Friday night.
SOUTH GWINNETT at ALPHARETTA
ALPHARETTA, Ga. – After frustrating losses each of the last two seasons on their home field, the Raiders (8-2) will look for the school’s first playoff win against a team bringing a 5-5 record into Friday’s opener.
Two of the Comets’ defeats came against teams that did not make the playoffs, but South Gwinnett scored wins against perennial Gwinnett powers Brookwood, Grayson and Parkview.
The Comets are a dangerous team offensively, with talent at the skill positions, but have struggled on defense. South Gwinnett has held just one opponent to fewer than 21 points, but Alpharetta coach Jason Dukes is more concerned about his team’s recent slow starts on offense.
“We need to do a better job moving the ball in the first half,” Dukes said.
The Raiders remain a pass-oriented team out of their spread formation, but have run the ball more effectively at times this season than the previous two playoff squads did.
Alpharetta’s defense has played consistently well throughout the season, especially in the second half, featuring a strong pass rusher (Andrew Butcher), one of the area’s leading tacklers (linebacker Bryce Grauss) and an excellent secondary.
While the Raiders have gone 0-3 in the first round of the playoffs the last three years, South Gwinnett has won its last three playoff openers dating back to the 2009 season.
If the Raiders win Friday, they will be at home in the second round against the Walton-Collins Hill winner.