By Rory Sharrock
During the preseason, no one expected much out of North Clayton.
In the playoffs, every one is picking them to make a run at the state title.
The Eagles (10-1, 9-0 Region 4-AAAA) have assembled perhaps their best team in school history and look to advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1997 when they welcome the Statesboro Blue Devils (10-1, 5-1 Region 2-AAAA) to Tara Stadium Friday night at 7:30 p.m. for in second-round action of the Class AAAA.
North Clayton's road to this game included a 10-1 overall mark in which it's lone defeat came in a 21-20 loss at Banneker. The Eagles were the symbol of perfection in region play, going 9-0 and clinching the league title with one game left to play in the regular season.
Last week, North Clayton showed why it is one of the premiere clubs in the state after cruising to a 41-14 laugher over Richmond Academy in the opening round of the playoffs.
However, Friday night's contest will be the team's toughest to date as it welcomes a Statesboro squad with many similarities. They both are state-ranked (Statesboro No. 7, North Clayton No. 8) and they both have 10-1 records with one-point loses. However, when the clock hits triple zeroes in the fourth quarter, all theses resembling traits will end as one team moves forward while the other packs up their equipment for next season.
"I'm looking for a dog fight. They look pretty good on film. They're well-coached and we're well-coached, so it should be an evenly matched game. Whoever makes the least amount of mistakes will come out the winner," said North Clayton head coach Rodney Hackney, who was named Region 4-AAAA Coach of the Year.
Although it's been 11 years since it last played in the quarterfinals and a four-year span between playoff appearances, North Clayton is going through the motions like a perennial postseason powerhouse.
The Eagles' practice sessions are as sharp as the ironed crease in the coach's khakis and there's a sense of confidence, not cockiness floating through the locker room.
"We're just really happy because we've never done this before and we think we can make history at North Clayton," said Eagles' running back Clarence Jackson, who was named Region 4-AAAA Offensive Player of Year.
Along with identical records, North Clayton and Statesboro have mirror statistical rankings. The Eagles are averaging 27.6 and giving up 9.8 points per game. Statesboro's numbers include scoring 24.9 and yielding 9.8 points on defense this season.
Defensive coordinator Max Wiltz has been busy all week inside the lab studying film and devising a scheme to counter Statesboro's multiple looks from the wishbone, broken bone, shotgun and split backfield formations.
"The philosophy is to stay active on defense and don't tell them where we're coming from. We're going to slant, blitz and stunt them to death. We'll change up the looks a lot and never stay in one place to make sure they can't zero in on our guys," said Wiltz.
If the Eagles emerge from the dust victorious, they'll play the winner of the Rome/Sandy Creek game next week. North Clayton would host another playoff game if Rome wins.
However, should Sandy Creek pull out the victory, home-field advantage would be determined by a coin flip.