By Rory Sharrock
There's a noticeable chill in the air and the glow from the baseball field lights are the only thing separating the team from complete darkness during this week's practice sessions, but North Clayton High School (9-0, 8-1 Region 4-AAAA) is focused on one thing and one thing only - the warm cozy feeling of victory.
While their nine wins in the standings are worthy to be praised, a win in Friday night's playoff game versus Richmond Academy (6-4, 6-3 Region 3-AAAA) at Tara Stadium would be the signature triumph for the Eagles and put them one step closer to their goal.
The No. 4-seeded Musketeers come into Friday's contest having lost three of their last four to sneak into the playoffs through the back, but the Eagles are ignoring their recent slide and are looking at them as a premiere squad with a first-place record.
"Their front line is pretty huge. I don't know if they're as fast as we are. Their front line averages about 260-280 pounds. Their strength is that they can make plays at any time. So we just have to play our game," said North Clayton head coach Rodney Hackney.
This season marks the first time the Eagles will appear in the playoffs since 2004. Ironically, 2004 was also the last time a playoff game was held at Tara Stadium.
As a result of the school's long postseason drought, North Clayton showcases a roster full of players making their postseason debut at Friday night's 7:30 p.m. kick off.
Nevertheless, the coaching staff is confident in their player's ability to continue to perform as they've done all year and beat their opponent into submission.
"Everybody's excited. I think they're a little nervous, but that's common. I think they'll play well. You'll see a little nervousness, but you'll see calmness and confidence at the same time," said Hackney. "We're going to do what we do. I don't believe in changing stuff. We may add a wrinkle here and there, but at the same time you don't want to confuse the kids."
North Clayton features a balanced attack on both sides of the ball that creates mismatches for opposing coaches. The offense boasts a line that looks like a moving brick wall clearing a pathway for thoroughbred running backs like Clarence Jackson and Demond Jones to make their own highlight reel.
This offensive group, which averaged 26.3 points per game, is led by junior quarterback Melton Artis, who is anxiously awaiting to take the field in the first playoff game of his blossoming career.
"It's very exciting because we've worked hard in practice. We wanted to reach this goal for a long time and now we've done it," said Artis. "We just have to go in strong, stay focused and work hard as a team, go out there and show out."
On defense, North Clayton has been reluctant to give up yards and points to the tune of 9.4 per game with three shutouts and three single-digit finals.
The Eagles break the huddle with three towering down linemen who rush the quarterback like he broke into their home. While defensive ends Emmanuel "Too Tall" Dieke and Drew Thompson get the majority of the sacks and tackles for negative yards, nose guard Albert Carlisle opens the door for them by drawing double team blocks on almost every snap.
This bruising senior, who brings a lunch box and hard hat to work, knows the Musketeers' blocking scheme won't present anything he hasn't seen before, however, he's totally focused on his goals and wants nothing less than a ring to cap off his career.
"All we have to do is play our game. If we play together as a team, we'll be OK. They're (Richmond Academy) a pretty good team and if we come out the lightly, it will be a long game. But if we come out and do what we're supposed to do, then we'll be fine. I've been starting for four year and this is my first time in the playoffs so I'm trying to take advantage of it. It feels even better being a senior and going to the playoffs."
Along with Henry County, North Clayton clinched a No. 1 seed in the playoffs and will host at least two games should it advance past the first round. While Tara Stadium is shared by all the Clayton County teams, the athletic venue will be transformed into the Eagles' personal domicile as a large 'N-C' logo will appear at midfield.