GAINESVILLE — High school coaches and players are usually quick to douse the import of any singular regular season game.
That does not apply to Union County at North Hall this week, however.
Both teams know this game will likely define their respective playoff destinies.
Lose and Union County is almost certain to miss out on its fifth straight state berth. North Hall, meanwhile, knows it can take a huge step toward its third straight postseason — or set itself up for a precarious finish.
“I think that obviously our backs are against the wall,” said Panthers coach Brian Allison, whose team has suffered three straight defeats, all in Region 7-AAA. And another loss would leave Union County 0-4 in league play with just two games to go. “Who knows what can happen later on? North Hall could beat East Hall, and that could change things. But I think it’s a big game, and I think our guys know that and will be up for it.”
The Trojans are well aware, and know they can continue an impressive rebound on Friday.
“I think it’s huge to be quite honest with you. If we don’t win it doesn’t kill us, but at the same time it’s that next step that this group has to learn to take, especially going in to, hopefully, the playoffs, and then next year where a lot of these kids are going to be back,” North Hall coach David Bishop said. “Understanding this is a pressure situation, how do you respond to pressure? I think it’s going to be a battle here Friday night, but I feel real good about where we are.”
Despite a tough start to the 2017 season North Hall has reason for optimism, as a young squad has grown into itself, bouncing back from a 0-4 start to win two of its last three and currently sits tied for third place in Region 7-AAA.
And with Class AAA No. 3 Greater Atlanta Christian (3-0 in 7-AAA) and offensive juggernaut East Hall (2-1) left to play, the Trojans would love to handle business this week and put themselves in prime postseason position.
“I think the key right now is just staying positive. We've had some close games that we know we could have won early in the season,” said North Hall senior running back/defensive back Cutter Sanford, who caught three passes for 138 yards and scored a rushing touchdown in last week’s 55-14 win over Lumpkin County. The statement win helped steady the Trojans after a 30-7 loss to 7-AAA foe Dawson County the week before.
“The loss to Dawson brought us down a little bit,” Sanford said. “But I think we’re back up to the peak positivity right now with this win, this big win, versus Lumpkin — so (we’re) looking forward to Union now.”
Offensively, the Trojans have given the Panthers food for thought with an efficient pass game that saw quarterback David Seavey complete 8 of 9 passes for 262 yards last week — an explosive combination with the Trojans’ normally ground-heavy wing-T attack (which also rushed for 271 yards last week). And while North Hall is still rushing for 171 yards per game (Jack Brown leads the way with 412 yards rushing and 4 TDs) Seavey is completing 65 percent of his passes — though he is attempting an average of just eight per game.
“It’s fun, but I can’t do without the offensive line,” Seavey said. “Most of the time the defenses we face are expecting run, but if we can pass it they can’t always expect the run.”
That said, the Panthers know exactly where their defensive focus will be on Friday.
“The people in the box, we’ve got to stop the run and make them beat us with the pass,” Union County senior linebacker RJ Banton said. “With our defensive line, they’ve got to do their job, and the linebackers have to do their job, and the corners have to do their job. We just have to all do our job to win the ball game.”
That has not been easy of late — and not just because of the competition as the Panthers have suffered numerous injuries to starters and standouts.
That includes Banton (second on the team with 51 tackles), who is close to full health, as well as star senior quarterback Cole Wright (1,072 yards passing, 15 TDs, 2 INTs; team-high 680 yards rushing, 9 TDs), who was knocked from the GAC contest to open 7-AAA play and has been limited in successive games against East Hall (5-2, 2-1 in Region 7-AAA) and Dawson (4-2, 2-0).
“We’ve battled, and we’ve had some serious injuries that — not serious, season-ending injuries but injuries that have effected us,” Allison said. “I think RJ’s close to 100 percent, and I think Cole’s getting on up into the 90s. But still last week we got another couple of guys hurt and another couple of guys out for this upcoming game, so it’s been quite a season for the injuries we’ve dealt with and it seems a lot of adversity on that end.”
That said, these Panthers have grown accustomed to winning — their current run of four straight playoff berths and a 32-12 record over that span is the best in program history — and they are not about to let bad luck hijack the mentality of the team.
“I think the confidence is there for sure, it’s the fact that we’ve got to get out there and do it,” Union senior cornerback Sean Dobbins said. “We’ve got some people playing some different positions; it’s just time for those people to step up. And I think we’re going to be fine, when it comes down to it, whatever job you’ve got is what you’re going to have to play, and we’re going to be good at it.”
And North Hall knows it must be wary.
“We expect a physical team, and we expect them to run the ball and pass the ball,” Seavey said. “They have a good quarterback so we have honor that.”
It should make for some taut — and perhaps frayed — nerves come Friday night at The Brickyard.
GAME of the WEEK
UNION COUNTY at NORTH HALL
-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: The Brickyard, Gainesville
-- RADIO: WDUN FM 102.9
-- UNION (4-3, 0-3 Region 7-AAA):
-- NORTH HALL (2-5, 2-1 Region 7-AAA):
-- SERIES: Union County won 35-32 last year; the Panthers lead the series 4-0, though last year was their first meeting since 1967.