Coming off of a successful 2009 season, Bob Sphire’s North Gwinnett Bulldogs entered 2010 facing a massive challenge. A ton of experience graduated after last year’s third-round playoff appearance, their second consecutive year making the quarterfinals.
Compounding matters was a treacherous start to this season’s campaign, with games against three strong opponents. Opening the season with an inexperienced bunch against such tough competition would be a daunting task for anyone. When the year started, Sphire and company weren’t sure how the team would respond.
“Even going into that opening game, we had a lot of questions especially on the defensive side and getting that personnel placed just right for us,” Sphire said.
As it turned out, Sphire didn’t need to worry about much. Today, his team is 3-0 and looking better than ever.
PREPARING FOR A GAUNTLET …
The Bulldogs lost 17 starters from last season’s team, which went 12-1. But at a school with the talent pool of North Gwinnett, the expectations never changed in hopes that the team would reload rather than rebuild.
“I don’t think there’s any external pressure that’s going to be any greater than what we put on ourselves,” Sphire said, “We have a high expectation of ourselves and we expect to work constantly year round and have a championship caliber team.”
That work began with weight training in the winter, which turned into spring practice in April, followed by speed drills and 7-on-7 play in the summer. But as the team broke in a host of new players during preseason practice in August, the growing pains were apparent.
“It didn’t feel like we as a coaching staff were going into our fifth season and it almost felt like we had just arrived,” Sphire said. “We had lost so much from the previous two years. It felt like we were trying to search for our identity.”
However, it wasn’t hard to keep the team focused. All anyone had to do was look at the first three games, which featured perennial power Lassiter and two quality out of state teams in Bob Jones (Ala.), and Crenshaw (Calif.). With that in mind, the team knew they’d better prepare well or an 0-3 record was a distinct possibility.
“I think we were scared to death,” Sphire said. “We were so concerned and feared failure so bad. It forced those kids to make a decision as to how they were going to approach it [the offseason]. There was a real feeling we could be embarrassed in those three games and it forced the players to focus from day one.”
There was one star that everyone already knew about. Quarterback C.J. Uzomah could play a variety of positions in college, but the Auburn commit is currently a nightmare for defensive coordinators from under center. The highly versatile Uzomah is a player with “great size, great mobility, very smart, and can make plays” according to rivals.com.
But Uzomah was just one proven piece amongst a plethora of inexperience.
Sphire was especially worried about the performance of his defensive front seven. Only junior Jordan Washington saw major playing time last season in the Bulldogs’ attack-minded defense. But a trio of fellow juniors in Jonathan Jones, Justin Alabi and Joe Dillard stepped up to the plate to form a solid team up front.
“They’ve really come together as a unit,” Sphire said about the defense.
STILL UNDEFEATED …
Although Sphire’s boys may be 3-0 now, he certainly didn’t see it coming.
“If I was a betting man I would have thought it would be somewhere in the middle,” he said.
The Bulldogs came out of the gates with a dominant 34-14 win over Lassiter. But the team did face a bit of adversity when they found themselves down 7-0 after just three plays from scrimmage thanks to an 81-yard touchdown pass.
“As soon as I saw that cat was gonna score I was on the headphones with the coaching staff and I said ‘well here we go, the track meet’s on, we’ve just gotta match them score-for-score,” Sphire said.
In the end, it was Lassiter that couldn’t keep up. North Gwinnett responded by dominating through the run game behind Ethan Kilgore and Donnie Miles, who both topped the century mark on the ground.
In week two, it was another convincing win. This time the victim was Bob Jones, and the Patriots were simply not sharp enough to hang in their opening game of the season.
The offense was steady throughout the day, while the defense also played a big part. Alabi recovered a fumble in the first quarter that resulted in points for the offense, and Tim Hill’s interception lead to a 15-yard score from Miles that gave the Bulldogs a 21-0 lead midway through the second quarter.
Perhaps the greatest test of all came in week three, with a visit from Crenshaw and big-time running back recruit De’Anthony Thomas for a nationally televised game on ESPNU. But being at home, Sphire knew his team had a critical advantage.
“We told them going into the game all week that the heat and humidity would be to our advantage,” Sphire said. “(And) that we would be more physically prepared than our opponents.”
The gameplan worked to perfection. The offense came out of the gates running the no-huddle, keeping the Cougar defense on their toes. By halftime, they had worn out their opponents. Multiple Crenshaw players had issues with cramps, and among them was Thomas, who also plays defense. He carried the ball just one time in the second half while the Bulldogs controlled to clock with their ground game.
The big play came midway through the third, when linebacker Brandon McGowan showed up big time, picking up a fumble and racing 43 yards for a score to give his team a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“The play actually happened on the other side of the field from me,” he said. “I just saw the ball on the ground, picked it up, and just started running.”
ONWARD AND UPWARD …
While the Bulldogs have accomplished quite a bit thanks to their 3-0 start, Sphire is warning his team not to be overconfident with region play just around the corner after a bye week.
“We told them afterwards we have enjoyed the heck out of this. But the real season starts in two weeks.”
After all, Sphire’s squad has yet to play a single region game, and there is plenty of work to be done with seven games left on the schedule. Things won’t be getting easier, either, as Region 6 is one of the toughest in the classification with the likes of Peachtree Ridge, Mill Creek, Norcross and Collins Hill.
“We can’t lose focus,” McGowan said. “The coaches won’t let us.”
Clearly, while 3-0 is nice, there are much higher aspirations for the football program at North Gwinnett. After the win over Crenshaw, Sphire made his players aware of that.
“The one thing I told the players the other night was ‘I want you to think about how bad you wanted to win this game because it was on national TV and it should pale in comparison to wanting to play in December.’ You could see it in their eyes that they understand what the real goals are.”