The loss kept the Hawks from hosting an all-Powder Springs semifinal against rival McEachern. Instead, the Bulldogs will face the Indians for a spot in the state championship game next Friday.
Hillgrove (11-2) built a 31-21 fourth-quarter lead, with running back Richardre Bagley taking the majority of the second-half snaps out of the wildcat package. He was forced into service at quarterback after Elijah Ironside suffered a concussion late in the first half and could not continue.
“It’s been a great year,” Hillgrove coach Phil Ironside said about the team being disappointed with the outcome of the game. “They’ve set the standard and tradition and I’m very proud of them. It was a tough loss but I’m still proud of the kids. They did great.”
Hillgrove (11-2) seemed to thrive in the second half when Bagley replaced Elijah Ironside. The Hawks trailed by a touchdown at the break, but they tied the game 4 minutes into the third quarter when Bagley scored from 35 yards out of the wildcat formation.
The Hawks scored again on the following drive to take a 28-21 lead when backup running back Sonny Harris lofted a 34-pass to Omar Black to set up Bagley’s third touchdown run. He scored from 11 yards out, and then Andrew Gaughn kicked a 34-yard field goal in the first minute of the fourth to stretch the lead to 31-21.
“I thought (Bagley) played great,” Phil Ironside said. “I thought the kids competed. We scored 17 in the second half without a quarterback so I thought we played great.”
Hillgrove held North Gwinnett (12-1) to only 7 yards in the third quarter, but that was when the Bulldogs made their move.
Quarterback Hayden Sphire, who competed 18 of 28 passes for 163 yards, started connecting with Caleb Scott on the ensuing drive. He hit Scott three times for 47 yards on an 11-play drive that ended with an 8-yard touchdown run by C.J. Leggett, who finished with 152 yards on 39 carries.
“We stalled out, obviously, in the third quarter,” North Gwinnett coach Bob Sphire said. “They had the hot hand with the wildcat package. They made the adjustment as a result of that and it kind of fed over to their defense. We had to weather the storm and get back on track.”
The Hawks got the ball back with a 31-28 lead and used a couple of first downs to move the ball from their own 25-yard line to the North Gwinnett 45. But a pair of false-start penalties pushed Hillgrove back to its own 47, and Bagley fumbled on third-and-18 while evading North Gwinnett defenders.
The Bulldogs got the ball back on the Hillgrove 35 and scored eight plays later on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Sphire to Daniel Imatorbhebhe to give North Gwinnett its lead back.
“We turned the ball over there at the end and gave them a short field,” Phil Ironside said. “Good teams take advantage and they scored to beat us.”
Needing a touchdown to win with 1:15 remaining, quarterback John Devine entered the game with his team on its own 19. A 27-yard pass to Richard Hallman and a 15-yard pass-interference penalty helped put the Hawks in scoring range at the North Gwinnett 27 with just under 30 seconds to play.
Devine took four shots at the end zone, the first of which bounced off the helmet of an open Emmanuel Beal and was unsuccessful. Almonzo Brown intercepted the Devine’s fourth-down try in the end zone with 4 seconds left.