The scenario for the North Sand Mountain football team this week is win and get to come home.
The No. 6-ranked Bison (11-1) would host a Class 2A state semifinal game on Nov. 27 with a win this week in the state quarterfinals against No. 4 Spring Garden (11-1).
The game is Friday at 7 p.m. at Spring Garden High School’s Panther Stadium.
The NSM-Spring Garden winner plays either top-ranked Mars Hill Bible or Aliceville in the Class 2A semifinals. If it advances, NSM’s first semifinal appearance would be played at Lloyd Dobbins Field in Higdon.
“It’d be great to get back to Higdon and play,” said North Sand Mountain head coach Keith Kirby. “We’re going to go over there and give it your best shot to make that happen.”
Friday’s game between NSM and Spring Garden is the third all-time meeting between the teams in a series that NSM lead 2-0. The teams’ last official meeting was in 1975, but they have however had two unofficial meetings the past two seasons during the annual Cherokee County Preseason Jamboree. The Bison edged Spring Garden 14-7 in a two-quarter scrimmage in 2019 while the Panthers returned the favor with a 6-0 win over NSM in a two-quarter scrimmage back on Aug. 20.
“We’ve played the last two years in a jamborees, so there’s some familiarity there,” Kirby said. “You’ve lined up against them, so it gives you a little better feel for them than just seeing them on film. Nobody showed a whole lot, but that’s still better than having to just rely on the film.”
Like NSM, the Class 2A Region 7 champion, Spring Garden won a region title this season. The Panthers went 8-0 en route to winning the Class 2A Region 6 title. Spring Garden, playing in Class 2A for the first time in school history, is averaging 45.7 points per game while allowing just 11.9. The Panthers, who are 106-75 under head coach Jason Howard over 16 seasons, posted wins in the regular season over Cedar Bluff 55-0, West End 62-0, Cleveland 34-14, Gaston 59-0, Westbrook Christian 14-8, Sand Rock 55-19, Wadley 51-13, Locust Fork and Southeastern 1-0 (COVID-19 related forfeits) and in the playoffs over Tanner 72-21 and No. 5 Red Bay 27-2.
“They’ve made that jump (from Class 1A) pretty flawlessly,” Kirby said. “Senior heavy team. Got a lot of real good skill guys that have been around a long time, a lot of good linemen. Really good football team. Well-rounded football team. You struggle to find any weak point.”
Spring Garden quarterback Ryley Kirk has completed 87 of 133 pass attempts for 1,385 yards and 16 touchdowns while also rushing for 242 yards and 11 touchdowns on 71 carries. Luke Welsh leads the Panthers in rushing with 1,244 yards and 12 touchdowns on 125 carries and Weston Kirk has 588 yards and 11 touchdowns on 71 carries while Cooper Austin has 34 receptions for 742 yards and nine touchdowns and Chaz Pope has 16 catches for 447 yards and six touchdowns. All five players also play a big role on defense for Spring Garden.
NSM’s top offensive weapons are senior quarterback Lake Bell, who is 70-of-122 passing for 1,160 yards and 19 touchdowns and 707 rushing yards and 10 carries on 91 carries, senior running back Fernando Luna with 816 yards and 11 touchdowns on 152 carries and junior receiver Derek Bearden with 33 receptions for 634 yards and seven touchdowns.
NSM is making its second straight state quarterfinal appearance while Spring Garden is making its third.
“I think it’s a similar situation for the two (programs),” Kirby said. “Their last 10 years or so have been their best like it has ours.”
NSM has won 76 games with nine playoffs appearances over the past 10 seasons while Spring Garden has won 79 games with eight playoff appearances. The 11 wins this season are an NSM program record, while Spring Garden’s 11 wins have tied its past two teams for its school-record win total.
“It’s going to be good one,” Kirby said. “You’re at that time of year when everybody’s good. We’ve got to be disciplined, got to be physical. When we have chances to make plays, we’ve got to make them. We’ve got to go over there and find a way to get it done against a really good football team.”