Published Wednesday, November 14, 2012
By DOUG GORMAN
If the Northgate Vikings and Harris County Tigers were stuck in a time warp, Friday night’s football contest might simply be a Region 3-AAAA clash.
Instead, it’s win or go home.
The two programs have met each of the last two years as region foes, with Northgate winning both contests in games that counted towards the league standings. But when the two teams renew their series on Friday in Hamilton, it comes as a first-round matchup in the GHSA Class AAAAA playoffs.
After spending the past two years playing in the same region in Class AAAA, both schools made the postseason again while making the jump ahead in classification.
Behind a 15-3 victory over Mundy’s Mill on Saturday night, the Vikings clinched the No. 4 playoff seed out of Region 4-AAAAA, while Harris County pulled off a stunner in its new region, upsetting state-ranked Thomas County Central to win the 1-AAAAA championship a year after losing one of the top high-school defenders in the state.
A year after finishing ahead of Harris en route to a region championship of its own in the former 3-AAAA, Northgate (5-5) is heading back to the playoffs for the second year in a row after a sluggish start compounded by injuries.
The Vikings are riding a three-game winning streak that has included victories over Starr’s Mill, McIntosh and Mundy’s Mill while allowing just 33 points over the stretch.
“We move from region football to playoff football, and that has been our goal all along,” Northgate head coach Tommy Walburn said.
The Vikings’ victory on Saturday gave the team new life heading back into the playoffs.
“It wasn’t pretty but it was a win,” Walburn said. “We are not used to playing games on Saturday, so I had a weird feeling all day leading up to the game.”
Northgate can attribute its turnaround to a team that finally got healthy again, and a Wing-T offense that began clicking on all cylinders. Throw in a stingy defense that caused turnovers in its last three games and Northgate heads into the postseason full of confidence.
“What happens, and I have learned this from some great coaches that I have worked under, once you get to the playoffs and become a perennial power, you may not win every game but chances are one year everything is going to click. You just have to get there first,” Walburn said “I told my kids, one of my biggest fears is not making the playoffs.”
Missing out on the playoffs isn’t something that has happened to often to Walburn. The coach has made it to the playoffs 10 times in his 12-year career, including two of his first three seasons at Northgate.
The Vikings received a huge lift when running back Benton Washington returned from the sidelines after suffering a broken arm in preseason. Although Washington missed the first half of the season, he is now turning in the type of production his coaches were expecting from him before the season started.
The junior running back – who along with T.J. Womack and Michael Willis – make the team’s Wing-T function. Washington leads the team with five touchdowns this season and more than 500 yards. Washington helped the Vikings secure their victory against the Tigers with a 35-yard run against midway through the fourth quarter.
One of the Vikings most dangerous offensive weapons this season has been T.J Womack. After changing jersey numbers and then moving from the offensive line to the backfield, Womack has showed his versatility with his ability to run, catch and even throw the football.
Against the Tigers on Saturday, Womack threw his second halfback pass of the year for a touchdown when he connected Brandon Facyson in the corner of the end zone against the Tigers.
Facyson made some acrobatic catches throughout the season, hauling in most of the throws quarterback Josh Harrison sends his way.
Northgate’s defense is starting to flex its muscle too. Led by Division I prospects Facyson, Sean Spencer and De’Andre Johnson, the Vikings have only given up 33 points in their final three games. The Vikings also stopped drives by Mundy's Mills with interceptions by Torres Johnson and Aaron Stargell last week.
Like Northgate, Harris County has been on a roller coaster ride this season. The Tigers (6-4, 5-0) began the year with four straight losses before catching fire and winning their final six games, including five in a row over Region 1-AAAAA opponents to capture the region title.
The Tigers’ latest victory came in a 18-12 victory over Thomas County Central.
Harris County started its winning streak against non-region foe Douglas County 37-31 in three overtimes before beating all five of its region opponents.
Although the Tigers beat Northside 48-0 during the streak, its final three wins against Lee County (35-31), Hardaway (28-21) and Thomas County Central (18-12) came by a combined 17 points.
Walburn knows Harris County is not the same football team as the one they put on the field in their loses to the Vikings the past two years.
“They are a better football team than the one we played the past two years,” Walburn said. “I am really good friends with (Coach) Tommy Parks. It doesn’t seem like we can get away from each other. I know they will be out for revenge considering what happened the past two seasons.”