Prep Football: Northgate faces mirror image in Heritage-Conyers to open year
By DOUG GORMAN
Forget the long practices under the hot August sun.
After nearly a month of preparation, capped off by last week’s 16-7 scrimmage win at Veterans High School in Warner Robins, Northgate can officially turn their attention to somebody else.
Heritage-Conyers and Northgate enter Friday’s season opener in Rockdale County after nearly identical 2011 seasons, each of which ended in the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs.
And the similarities don’t end there. Both operate their offenses out the Wing-T and both enter the new campaign full of expectations.
Despite the mirror image, Northgate’s Tommy Walburn feels like most head coaches heading into the start of a new year when both anticipation and repetition have hit their peak.
“We are not going to get better until we start playing other people,” Walburn said. “We are tired of practicing against each other. We had a little dress rehearsal last week. Now it is for real and we are excited about it. I am looking forward to seeing how we are going to do Friday night.”
Both programs enjoyed their best seasons in school history last fall, each winning a first-round playoff game, a region title and finishing the season with over 10 victories. Northgate went undefeated en route to a 3-AAAA title before falling to East Paulding in the second round. The Patriots, under one-time Viking assistant Chad Frazier, finished in a three-way logjam for first in 8-AAAA and also advanced through the first round in double-overtime against Rome only to later fall to Ware County.
“Like us, they are coming off their best season in school history,” Walburn said.
It could be a few weeks before Northgate is able to operate at full strength.
“We are going to be pretty banged up the first part of the season,” he said “That is just part of the game, some years you will have lots of injuries and sometimes you won’t,” Walburn said.
Northgate is also going through it’s share of illness too which has forced a handful of players to miss practice throughout the week.
“We have had a lot of flu and sinus problems. We just have to play through those things because they usually heal up,” Walburn said.
In his sixth year, Frazier has led his team to back-to-back playoff appearances and has posted a 29-24 career record since moving on to the school in Conyers.
“They are a well-coached football team,” Walburn said.
A year ago, Northgate was able to move the ball almost at will against teams thanks to a potent ground attack.
Running backs Alex Lakes and Payton Usher shared The Newnan Times-Herald Offensive Player of the Year honors, but both have graduated to the college ranks.
Senior quarterback Josh Harrison officially makes his debut after spending time as the team’s back-up the past couple of seasons.
In last Friday’s scrimmage, Harrison threw a 70-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Facyson for one of the Vikings’ two scores.
Running back Michael Willis, who transferred into Northgate from East Coweta at the start of practice earlier this month, scored the other touchdown in the scrimmage.
“We are pleased with Josh,” Walburn said. “We think he did some good things in the scrimmage against Veterans. The only thing he lacks experience in big ball games. He played in a lot of games last year, but it was mainly in a mop-up role. He is excited and we are excited for him.”
With his 6-4, 210-pound frame, Harrison could prove to be a tough load for defense to try and bring down. Against Veterans showed his running ability by breaking several tackles.
This year it could be the defense that keys Northgate to a successful year.
The Vikings enter the 2012 campaign with three Division I prospects on the defensive side
Defensive lineman De’Andre “Moose” Johnson has committed to Georgia and Sean Spencer has committed to Vanderbilt. Cornerback Brandon Facyson has committed to Virginia Tech.
Heritage also puts a stout defense on the field this year with the its strength coming from a group of experienced and tested linebackers.
Inside linebackers Chase Alford and Dustyn Moore and outside linebackers Dominique Packer and Ty Lundy are all considered college prospects for the Patriots and will be expected to anchor the defense.
Friday night’s season opener won’t be the last non-region test for the Vikings.
After playing Heritage, the Vikings return home for games against two other teams that made the playoffs. Northgate hosts Griffin next week and North Clayton the following week. The Vikings beat North Clayton in the first round of the playoffs last season.
Win or lose, Walburn knows the tough games early will make his team ready for a serious playoff run when they open the Region 4B-AAAAA schedule against Whitewater on Oct. 5.
"We may have caught a break last year, but there are no breathers this year. Alexander was going through a transition (when we opened with them last year), but we don’t have that luxury this year,” Walburn said. “Heritage expects to have a good football team this year, and they have a lot of college prospects on their team too. When they step out there, they expect to win. That’s the type of team you need to play early.”