Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan The Norcross student section chants "We Believe We Will Win" in the fourth quarter against Lovejoy during the Class AAAAAA high school football state championship game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Saturday. Norcross defeated Lovejoy 21-14 to become state champions.
ATLANTA --Even the most diehard Norcross fans who attended football games in the late 1990s couldn't have imagined the scene Saturday night at the Georgia Dome.
A wall of Norcross supporters lined one side of the stands, covering the lower and mezzanine levels in a sea of blue. It made the Lovejoy crowd, not a small group by any means, look tiny.
In the end, those fans celebrated the completion of Norcross' rise from mediocrity 15 years ago to the state's elite thanks to a 21-14 win over Lovejoy in the Class AAAAAA finals.
"All week long it's been that way (with the support)," Norcross head coach Keith Maloof said. "Today at 5:15, 5:30 when we were leaving the school (fans) lined the drive out to Peachtree Industrial (Boulevard). They've come out to support these kids and support this school. I've stayed at Norcross 14 years and my kids went through school here because of this community."
What struck me is how different Saturday's scene was from the pre-Maloof days.
The Blue Devils were on a run of three straight losing seasons from 1996-98, attendance was slipping and interest in playing for the football team was at a low point. I remember looking at pitiful, 30-player varsity rosters in 1998. Now Norcross, with more than 200 players in its program, is one of Gwinnett's biggest.
Part of the high school's rejuvenation was moving from the old campus at Beaver Ruin Road to its posh new home off Spalding Drive. But more important than that was a change in the mindset of the football team. A big part of that was bringing in Maloof and his experienced coaching staff, a group of men who have put in the years of work to get the program to this point.
A consistent winning program over the past eight seasons, Norcross reenergized the fan base that turned out in huge numbers on Saturday.
"It means the world to win (the school's first football title," Norcross quarterback Joseph Wilber said. "It's cool seeing the whole faculty, the entire community behind us. ... The crowd was awesome. They cheered us on in the second half when we needed it. They really made a difference."
It's been fun to see the growth and improvement of the Norcross program over the last 15 years. The corner wasn't turned quickly --the Blue Devils' early growth years under Maloof coincided with all of Gwinnett's big schools jammed into one region -- but the coaches had patience.
The players started believing, too. Now Norcross is at the pinnacle of Georgia high school football, and the program is built to stay there.
"These kids had to learn how to win," Maloof said. "Once they learned how to win, it was all about winning the region and winning championships."
Will Hammock can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His regular column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock.