By Jeffery Armstrong
This is "clinch week" in high school football for many of the teams on winning streaks in the state. Several Clayton County teams are pretty much ensured of state playoff berths and can clinch region titles with wins this week.
Not so for the North Clayton Eagles. Despite an 8-0 start to a season for only the fourth time in team history (the others were 1962, 1964 and 1993), defeating heavyweights Lovejoy, Riverdale and Mays in the process, the No. 9 Eagles find themselves in a must-win situation just to clinch a state playoff spot.
The Eagles must defeat the hard-charging Jonesboro Cardinals (4-3-1), winners of two of their last three games, tonight at Tara Stadium just to put themselves in a position to win the Region 5-AAAA East title. Should the Cardinals upend the Eagles, North Clayton's great start could be for naught.
"It's pretty wild, isn't it?" said North Clayton head coach Don Shockley. "Jonesboro and Stone Mountain both have three losses and yet we find ourselves having to beat them both just to qualify for the playoffs."
Unfortunately for the Eagles, Jonesboro is 2-1 in the subregion and Stone Mountain is 3-0 like North Clayton. Shockley knows that county rival Jonesboro has a shot to win tonight's contest.
"They play a Cover 2 defense where they bring the safeties down and their middle linebacker (Rocky Lee) is the heart and soul of their team," Shockley said. "If we don't play our best game, we'll be in trouble."
Shockley said Jonesboro will try to contain Eagles quarterback Morgan Burnett, who will be challenged to check off and make plays. He also said the game boils down to whose defense plays the best and whose special teams will make the plays.
The Eagles will have to play this game without a key defender, junior lineman Ray Taylor, who was ejected from last week's game against South Atlanta for two personal fouls. According to Georgia High School Association rules, Taylor has to sit out a game.
As far as special teams, receiver/cornerback Dirk Engram is always a breakaway threat and North Clayton does have an accurate kicker in senior Shaka Bangura. Jonesboro counters in the kicking game with clutch senior Patrick Saxby, who's had game-winning kicks against South Atlanta and Southwest DeKalb.
Tonight will be Jonesboro's fourth chance to win consecutive games this season. Should the Cardinals win their second straight, it will definitely be their biggest win of their year.
"We've had a good week of practice and we really focused on what we need to do," said Jonesboro head coach Larry Mortonson. "We're looking forward to the challenge."
The challenge will be for Jonesboro to try to contain Burnett and Engram and not lose sight of any of the other Eagles role players.
"It will be hard to contain those two guys all night n we just want to slow them down," Mortonson said. "We hope to be competitive against them."
Mortonson said the Cardinals have gotten more physical on the field lately and they will need to be against a physical North Clayton team. He also has been impressed with Lee's performance as a fullback this season.
"He's been great on defense, but it was suggested by my coaching staff that he get more playing time on offense and he's responded," Mortonson said. "I'm very happy with his play at the position, no doubt."