The Northside Eagles hope to book another trip to a state championship game when they play in the GHSA Class AAAAA semifinals Friday night.
But standing in their way is an unbeaten Allatoona team that is looking for its first appearance.
Allatoona is enjoying its best season in the seven short years that the school has been open, but the Buccaneers have become no strangers to success. They have advanced to the state playoffs in all five years they’ve been eligible.
Head coach Gary Varner and his staff have overseen the rise of the Allatoona program from a non-varsity schedule in 2007 and 2008, to Class AAA in 2009 and 2010 and finally Class AAAAA since 2012.
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“In our five years of varsity football, we’ve made the quarterfinals three times,” Varner said. “We’ve just got a good community and a really good coaching staff. Something that I think gets lost a lot of the time is that 95 percent of these coaches opened the school with us seven years ago. Having that continuity in the staff is very, very helpful.”
This year’s Allatoona team is led by a pair of standout running backs.
Junior Russell Halimon already has been offered scholarships by a handful of Division I teams and has averaged 26 carries per game on his way to a 2,000-yard season and 24 touchdowns. He’s spelled by senior Joshua Bettistea, who has scored 13 times and averages close to 8.0 yards per carry.
The Buccaneers average more than 285 rushing yards per game.
“We’ve got two good running backs that most people know about in Halimon and Bettistea,” Varner said. “We’re a Pro-I offense. We start with the run for the most part, and we play-action from under the center.”
Varner believes his defense has improved as the year has progressed. No opponent has managed more than 17 points against his team in the playoffs after the defense surrendered 20 or more points seven times during the regular season.
They’ve compiled 31 sacks on the season.
“Defensively we’re probably a little bit smaller than most, but we play with good team speed,” Varner said. “They’ve kind of jelled as the year went on, so hopefully we’re coming together at the right time.”
An undersized defense and an offense that likes to run the ball downhill would seem to play right into the hands of a Northside team that boasts one of the largest offensive and defensive lines in the state.
Although Varner admits that gives him cause for concern, don’t expect the Buccaneers to try and reinvent themselves.
“I think at this point in the (season) you do what you do and try to make adjustments during the game,” Varner said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to deal with them up front to some level, but the more that you watch the film, the more you understand that it’s going to be difficult.”
Allatoona won’t have to deal with a McConnell-Talbert Stadium crowd that Northside has enjoyed so much success in front of during past playoff campaigns. For the second straight week, the Eagles have had to move a home game to a neutral site because of poor field conditions in their home stadium.
This week’s game will be played at Mercer University Stadium.
“I don’t know if it’s an advantage, but it’s not a disadvantage,” Varner said. “I just think it’s a great atmosphere that you’re going to a college stadium. The kids will be really excited about it I would imagine, so I think it adds a little bit of juice to the whole thing.”