By Derrick Mahone
As the North Clayton football players made their way to the weight room Monday, a couple of them stopped by the bulletin board and pointed at the Class AAAA bracket.
North Clayton was highlighted in yellow ink with a line drawn all the way to the championship game.
"We want to be in the dome," shouted an Eagles player as he continued to the weight room.
The Eagles are two games away from making that into reality as they prepare for the quarterfinal round against Clarke Central on Friday in Athens. North Clayton kept its playoff hopes alive with a 21-12 win at Brunswick last week while Clarke Central shocked second-ranked Southwest DeKalb 19-17 on the road.
"We are definitely looking forward to this weekend," North Clayton standout running back Clarence Jackson said. "Our goal has always been to play for a state championship."
School is out this week for the holiday break, but the football players will continue their workouts all this week. The team will practice Thanksgiving morning. This will mark the first time since 1999 that North Clayton coach Rodney Hackney has been involved in a Thanksgiving Day practice. He was an assistant on the Mt. Zion staff that reached the Class AAA championship game.
"When you are in this type of profession, it comes with the territory," Hackney said. "We are hoping to get out by noon and have a little dinner for the kids. We have gotten good support from the parents and administration."
The players said they don't mine sacrificing what would be an off week for a shot at a championship.
"There are a lot of people who didn't expect us to be here," senior safety Winston Williams said. "We have been really focused."
Both teams enter the game with a 10-2 record and were region runner-ups, which forced a coin flip to determine the homesite. North Clayton lost the coin toss after Hackney called heads.
"That was on me because I always call heads," Hackney grinned. "I have no regrets. Everything happens for a reason. We have been tested on the road against a good Brunswick team. I think everybody sort of penciled in Southwest DeKalb to make it. In high school football anything can happen. There are no more No. 4 seeds left. Everybody is good at this point."
Like North Clayton, the Gladiators are making their first appearance in the quarterfinals since 1997. Under former legendary coach Billy Henderson, Clarke Central won three state championship. The Gladiators hit on some lean years following Henderson retirement in 1995, but fourth-year coach Leroy Ryals seems to have the program headed back in to championship contenders.
Much of this year's team is built around quarterback Martay Mattox, who had 81 yards passing and 55 rushing against Southwest DeKalb. This will mark the third straight week the Gladiators have faced a team from the metro Atlanta area in the playoffs. Clarke Central opened the postseason with a home victory against Mays.
"We came in as the underdog, just like last week, but we overcame it," Mattox told the Athens Banner after the win last week. "We're going to keep at it. We've got work to do and we've got to get to the (Georgia) Dome."