Norcross’ Myles Autry (5), Clinton Lynch (2) and head coach Keith Maloof (middle) lift up the championship trophy after defeating North Gwinnett 31-14 during Saturday’s Class AAAAAA state championship game at the Georgia Dome. (Photo: Kyle Hess)
RAW VIDEO: Norcross head coach Keith Maloof
Norcross head coach Keith Maloof addresses his team (and does a little dance) following their 31-14 win over North Gwinnett in the Class AAAAAA state championship on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.
ATLANTA — Defending last year’s Class AAAAAA state championship was enough for Norcross. It gave the football team a feeling of having something to prove into this year’s title game.
And the fact it also gave the Blue Devils a chance to avenge a loss to Region 7-AAAAAA rival North Gwinnett from earlier in the season only added to that feeling.
But there is a third element that made Norcross’ 31-14 win over North late Saturday night at the Georgia Dome that much more satisfying.
“This game describes our season so much,” said Blue Devils quarterback A.J. Bush, who was 18 of 24 for 306 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in the win. “It was basically starting off slow, everybody writing us off and then coming back and winning.”
In a way, Bush has a point, though even when North (13-2) put them in a 14-0 first-quarter hole, even the most vocal critic probably wasn’t writing the Blue Devils off. When Myles Autry returned the kickoff 92 yards for a score following the second Bulldogs’ TD, they were right back in it.
That wasn’t really the case when Norcross’ season started in one of the worst ways possible back in August.
A 55-0 loss beatdown at the hands of eventual Florida Class 4A state champion Booker T. Washington in front of a national television audience was a major embarrassment for the Blue Devils, and brought out plenty of naysayers.
“You read about it, you hear about it, ‘No, they can’t do it,’” Norcross head coach Keith Maloof said. “It’s all these kids heard all year long. And here they are. They did it.
“It’s about life. This football team this year learned more about life by what happened to them early on than last year’s team did going 15-0. That just shows you in life, you never give up. If you keep battling and keep fighting, you’re going to get it done.”
Indeed, for the players who had to endure that initial humiliation, along with a 36-17 loss to North two weeks later that left the Blue Devils at 1-2 and with a sense of self-doubt, Saturday’s win brought them from the proverbial outhouse to the penthouse.
“It’s amazing because everybody doubted us,” said senior receiver Clinton Lynch, who had a huge game with six catches for 138 yards and a touchdown in Saturday’s win. “We all had to come together as a team and rebound from (the) Booker T. (Washington loss), and now look where we are. We’re state champs.”
But if there is a single player who may symbolize the sense of redemption felt by the Blue Devils after Saturday’s win, it might be Autry.
After a big junior season and receiving scholarship offers from some of the top college programs in the country, much was expected from the 5-foot-11, 159-pound receiver this season.
But with recovery from torn knee ligaments suffered last year going much slower than anticipated, most of the season had been a struggle for him.
That was until he finally shed his knee brace in Norcross’ semifinal matchup against Colqutt County, and his 19-yard TD reception provided the winning points in a 14-9 win that put the Blue Devils into the title game.
Then on Saturday, he demonstrated that the old Myles Autry was back by posting 207 all-purpose yards, including the 92-yard kickoff return and a 69-yard TD reception from Bush in the fourth quarter that helped Norcross pull away.
“There was a lot of adversity facing me this whole season,” Autry said. “After every game, I prayed to God. God just told me to be patient.That’s how I felt. Every week I just worked hard in the weight room to get better with my knee. I told my team just to wait, and I’ll be there for them.
“This whole season, I had my brace on. I talked to the trainer before the Colquitt game, and (we agreed) to just trust my knee and take the brace off. They trusted it, and look what happened.”
And in the end, Autry and the Blue Devils wound up right back in the same place they wound up last season, and right back where they always expected to be — up on the winner’s podium on the Georgia Dome floor.
“It’s awesome,” Maloof said. “Two years in a row, repeating back-to-back, you just can’t say enough about that. I’m proud of the way these kids have persevered. I’m proud of the way these kids fought. They put themselves in position to win two state championships in a row.”