JEFFERSON -- Who needs a "rivalry?"
The North Hall-Jefferson football contest brings with it no real bad blood or long-standing fueds... And it may just be one of the best games in the state.
Doubt it? Check the stats, check the results and -- most importantly -- go and watch a Dragons-Trojans showdown.
For the past three years, this contest has been one of the hardest-fought, closest battles of the season -- the largest margin of victory being 10 points -- decided on last-minute drives and, in last year's case, a last-ditch tackle. And this year's battle brings the added cache of a defending state champ (Jefferson) facing off with a state semifinalist from a year ago (North Hall).
All the elements are in place for a classic, and both teams are preparing for exactly that.
"North Hall is the best team we've played to date. They've got a great squad coming back and probably the best team they've had in four years," Jefferson coach Ben Hall said. "The kids are excited. It's the game before we start our region slate, so we want to go into that strong."
Trojans coach Bob Christmas also knows that a victory tonight could prove important, as his squad prepares for the slog that is the Region 7-AAA schedule.
(NOTE: Click here for a look at tonight's full slate of contests for area teams.)
"I think it's big. Any time you line up it's big," Christmas said. "It has a lot to do with your whole psyche going from there.You want to have confidence going into region play and getting a quality win against Jefferson would really help us."
Both teams should enter tonight's match-up with plenty of confidence after strong starts to 2013.
The Trojans opened the campaign with a hardfought, 33-15 win over cross-county rival Chestatee and followed that with a 63-6 second-half domination of Johnson -- in which the Trojans scored 41 second half points. Yet Christmas says his team is still building momentum through the early part of the season and hopes that tonight's match-up will only increase that learning curve.
"We've always tried, non-region, to play the best that you can because I think that makes you better," Christmas said. "We've got a lot of work to do right now. In the first half of the Johnson game we played poorly. But we made some adjustments and scored four (touchdowns) in third. The biggest thing is we have to start being consistent."
Hall is in search of the same things for the Dragons, who say they also have plenty of room for improvement despite shutting out rivals Commerce and Jackson County by a combined 89-0 in two wins this season.
"We've got to continue to improve fundamentally on offense. We're not clicking like want to click on offense right now," Hall said. "We've played hard on both sides of the ball. And probably the most pleasing thing is they realize they're not there yet. They're pretty focused on getting better."
Considering the results so far, the ceilings for both teams are lofty indeed. And both understand that they will have to raise their games tonight.
"We're excited," Jefferson senior safety Austin Mixon said. "North Hall is the toughest team on the schedule this season, and we're ready for it."
Indeed, the Trojans will bring a punishing wishbone attack to Memorial Stadium, intent on continuing the start that has seen them average just over 350 yards rushing per contest. Led by quarterback Andrew Smith (146 yards rushing, 2 TDs; 95 yards passing, 2 TDs) and running backs Zac Little (168 yards, 3 TDs), Isaac Seid (158 yards, 2 TDs) and Brannon Dyer (102 yards, 2 TDs), North Hall has ground up opposing defenses behind an imposing offensive line. Yet senior lineman Russell Gillespie says his teammates in the trenches still have plenty of room to improve and will need to do so on Friday.
"We're going to have to have the best game we've had all season," Gillespie said. "We've done OK, but we've come a million miles and we can go a million more. (Jefferson) comes off the ball hard, and it's going to be tough."
The Dragons defense is led by junior linebacker Maverick McKinney with 23 tackles, while fellow linebacker Trent Sorrells and defensive back Tradd Porter have 16 stops apiece.
Jefferson's multiple offense has shown plenty of weapons so far this season, including new starting quarterback Evan Shirreffs -- the junior who is in his first season as starter after taking over from his older brother Bryant (an All-State selection). Shirreffs is 29-of-50 this season for 387 yards passing and five touchdowns, while running backs Tristen Jackson (190 yards, TD; 153 yards receiving, 3 TDs) and Isaiah Blake (132 yards, 4 TDs; 7 catches for 80 yards) have been constant threats.
"(Shirreffs) throws it extremely well, and they actually throw it more," Christmas said of the Dragons. "Their bread and butter is still the zone play. And they spread you from sideline to sideline and have some hard-hitting backs that makes you keep two linebackers in the box. It all presents problems in the balanced attack they have."
North Hall's defense has excelled against the pass so far this season (allowing just 76 yards so far) but has also held in check two offenses more reliant on the ground game, yielding 147.5 yards rushing per contest.
"Our defense didn't lose many people, and we're excited for the challenge," said senior linebacker David Epps, who is second on the team with 20 tackles this season