Friday September 22nd, 2017 2:23AM

The playoffs start for several area programs this Friday

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
Listed in alphabetical order

Flowery Branch
North Gwinnett
North Hall
Rabun County
Union County
White County
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West Hall football may be the most improved team in the state, regardless of classification.

North Forsyth has already clinched its first winning regular season record in four years.

But you won't catch the Spartans or Raiders trumpeting those successes -- not this week.

Right now both West Hall and North Forsyth have one thing on their collective minds -- and they are far from alone. A number of area programs enter this weekend with state playoff berths on the line and for teams like Dawson County, Jackson County and Stephens County, it is all about getting that big "W" and moving into the postseason.

"We're in the results business, not the moral victory business," said North Forsyth coach Jason Galt, who has led the Raiders to the brink of the postseason in his first season in charge of the program. "We want to get to back to the playoffs."

(NOTE: Click here for a look at the area's regions and what teams are in and the playoff scenarios within each.)

North Forsyth is only three years removed from the state bracket -- West Hall is looking to end an 11-year postseason drought.

To do it, the Spartans will play a winner-take-all showdown at Dawson County on Friday, facing a Tigers program eager to put together back-to-back state appearances.

"There's no prizes for the most improved team," said West Hall coach Tony Lotti, who has the Spartans one win removed from the playoffs in his second year in charge. "My guys are ready to play and are excited for the opportunity."

Dawson County coach Jeff Lee says his players are also pumped for what Friday's showdown will bring.

"Not a lot of people gave us a chance to be here after what we graduated last year," Lee said. "And you can't ask for a better scenario than this, game 10 with everything in the line... And on paper it looks like it should be a great game."

The Spartans and Tigers sport identical 5-4 records and have the same three region losses -- to 7-AAA leaders Buford, North Hall and White County. And both expect a photo finish on Friday.

"We match up pretty equally. When that happens, your playmakers have to make plays, and you have to avoid mistakes," said Lotti, who will be waiting to see the status of senior quarterback Zach English, who was injured in last week's 14-0 defeat to White County. "We'll just have to wait and see. Jacob (Satterfield) played well for us last week after coming on, so that was good to see."

Satterfield completed 7 of 10 passes for 82 yards while playing the entire second half.

Lee notes that special teams could also play a huge role, and he would not be surprised to see a kick decide the game -- one way or another.

"It could be one short kick that goes out of bounds at the 10; it could be a field goal," Lee said. "This game should come to down to the fourth quarter, and I expect it to be one of the best high school football games played in the state."

In Region 8-AAA, Jackson County coach Benji Harrison too knows that any little thing will be magnified when his Panthers take on Morgan County on Friday.

"It's a huge game for both teams; win and you're in," said Harrison, who is hoping to lead Jackson County back to the state playoffs in consecutive seasons. "What more could you ask for but to have everything to play for in the last game of the season?"

Just like Dawson and West Hall, the Jackson-Morgan winner marches on and the loser will begin cleaning out the locker room.

Considering where the Panthers were when Harrison took over, the coach is heartened by his program's progress. It has not been easy in 2013 after graduating a number of key players from last year's first-ever state playoff team, but Jackson has rebounded from an 0-3 start to earn another shot.

"We've got the program going in the right direction," Harrison said. "The goal is to be in the playoffs every year, and this does legitimize what we did last year."

To earn a second straight state bid the Panthers will have to find a way past Morgan County team that is finding its offensive firepower again thanks to the return of starting quarterback Trent Hawk -- who missed playing time earlier in the season through injury.

"We've got to tackle better on defense and get a lot of people around the ball," Harrison said. "They are physical and try to run right at you."

The Panthers' own offense has played well this season, averaging just over 30 points per game and will look for another big night playing in front of a home crowd.

"Playing at home is huge," Harrison said. "We need our fans to pack it out; our kids understand it's a big game.

In Toccoa, meanwhile, Stephens County will look to nab yet another playoff spot in front of its home crowd when they play host to Lumpkin County knowing that a victory clinches a berth. (The home-standing Indians could also clinch with an Eastside loss to undefeated Monroe Area on Friday.)

Coach Travis Noland says that the fact that the injury-plagued Indians are in position to net their fourth straight postseason berth and 17th in 18 seasons speaks volumes about his players.

"It's been a struggle, when we were so young and inexperienced already and then you have all the injuries," Noland said. "The kids have hung in there, and we've gotten a little better each week. We have not had the same starting line-up on offense and defense in consecutive weeks this season."

Noland adds that his team cannot afford to take anything for granted against, Lumpkin County (1-8), which features a dangerous offense -- including receiver Johnathan Gilreath, who has 901 yards receiving so far in 2013.

"There's no game we feel like we can just show up and win," Noland said. "And Lumpkin County is a much better team than their record indicates."

Fans in Region 6-AAAAAA could be saying the same thing about North Forsyth this season. The Raiders (6-3, 3-3 Region 6-AAAAAA) are a 14-13 loss to Lambert removed from being in a much better position than they find themselves this week -- needing a five-point (or more) win over arch-rival South Forsyth (7-2, 4-2) to clinch a playoff berth via the 6-AAAAAA tiebreaker rules.

Lambert could make things a little easier for North by defeating West Forsyth on Friday -- meaning a victory of any size would clinch a state berth for the Raiders -- but Galt says his team is focused only what it can control.

"We're right about where I thought we'd be at the beginning of the season; and it's been exciting and memorable this season for sure," Galt said. "But we want to get back to the playoffs."

Galt expects a physical battle between two old rivals that base both offenses around the ground game.

"It's going to be very evenly matched, and it's going to come down to who wants it more and who can avoid making mistakes," said Galt, who's seen his team complete two straight comeback wins -- including last week's 38-21 defeat of Johns Creek in which the Raiders trailed 21-0.

"It was good to see that fight out of the kids," Galt said. "The kids have bought in, and it's been a fun ride."

And it's not over yet -- and a number of area teams hope it's not by a long shot.
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