Northside doesn’t waste time.
A game ends, handshakes are exchanged, the Eagles zip to the side in front of the band for the alma mater, and within seconds, whistles start blaring, and players turn and sprint to the buses.
Their home games at McConnell-Talbert Stadium are a few miles from the school, and the routine doesn’t change.
It did a little bit Friday. For one, so fast are the Eagles in departure mode that the locker room in Mercer’s fieldhouse was still locked, so about 100 players milled about, waiting to get in.
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Of course, that was fine, and the Eagles spent the extra time hugging and crying and shouting, and hugging and crying some more until the door opened and head coach Kevin Kinsler herded them in for a few minutes after their 30-21 win over Allatoona in a GHSA Class AAAAA semifinal.
Doors opened, they poured out to the buses, and Kinsler stopped for two quick interviews. Not quick enough.
“I gotta go be with these guys,” said the final person to get on a Northside bus Friday night.
The last time Northside reached the championship game was Kinsler’s final game as an assistant, in 2009. Less than a month after that 31-3 loss to Camden County, head coach Conrad Nix announced his retirement.
Kinsler was handed the keys about a week later, and he’ll carry a 59-6 record into the championship game five years to the day of Nix’s final game.
The 20-minute ride from Mercer to Northside as mist began falling was the ride of the Eagles’ lives. Kinsler took it as just part of the program rather than as the head coach that got any monkeys off his back.
“It didn’t seem like 20 minutes,” Kinsler said. “It was pretty quick. Kids were talking about different plays that took place during the game and talking about going to the Dome.
“Our staff has just worked so good together. I don’t know. I know I’m the head coach, and this and that. I can’t really say it’s any sweeter here or there. Any time you’re there, it’s satisfying.”
The Eagles played three superb quarters on both sides for a 27-7 lead and then struggled -- more so on defense -- in the fourth quarter. Allatoona scored 14 points to add suspense.
Quarterback Conner Larson was 12-of-18 for 160 yards in that fourth quarter, with the Bucs facing only one third down on the two 80-yard scoring possessions.
Kinsler said it was more great plays by Allatoona receivers -- especially Zach Nichols -- than breakdowns by the Eagles.
“Once you get a lead and it gets late in a game, you’re willing to give up that stuff underneath and tackle them inbounds,” Kinsler said. “It doesn’t look good for your stats, but it also makes them run clock.”
Northside’s first three quarters were what most are likely to remember, led by Willie Jordan’s 231 yards on 41 carries and assorted program records, as well as surpassing the 2,100-yard mark for the season.
No doubt one of the most relieved Eagles players was Tobias Oliver.
The sophomore quarterback has rarely looked like a sophomore quarterback for extended periods of time this season, but he had some struggles Friday.
It was only fifth game this season in which he failed to crack 100 yards in total offense, passing and running. Save for Nate Greene’s superb catch late in the fourth quarter, good for 34 yards, it would have been Oliver’s second-lowest total of the season.
How funny are stats? Oliver’s lowest yardage output was 50 yards against Warner Robins, a 24-21 Northside win and the game considered to be Oliver’s coming out party, certainly as far as management and decision-making.
Friday night, he had some footwork stumbles and pitchouts that went awry, and he lost 21 yards on three plays in the second half, 10 on consecutive snaps.
But Oliver wasn’t intercepted and didn’t force things offensively, wisely handing off 41 times to Jordan, and then another eight times to TJ Anderson, who had 55 yards.
And in the fourth quarter, when the Eagles needed to eat up time, Oliver led the offense to 14 plays, 67 yards, three points and nearly eight minutes consumed, with one drive ending with Justin Alonso’s third field goal of the night.
“At that point, a field goal is as good as a touchdown, because it makes it a two-possession game,” Kinsler said. “I thought he managed the game well.”
The offensive line had its usual part in that.
“Oh my God,” Jordan said. “They had a tremendous game. Trucks could run through those holes.”