GAINESVILLE — Coming into Year 4, Gainesville coach Heath Webb was still looking for that signature win.
“I felt like coming into this year we were right where we wanted to be as a program,” Webb said earlier this week. “The coaches have been preaching a consistent message and the kids have been believing in what we’re doing. We were hoping maybe the Johns Creek game would start us off right.”
But a disappointing loss to the Gladiators in their season opener seemed to set an unsettling tone for a team rebuilding in several key areas, including handing the offense over to a young, but talented, sophomore quarterback Baxter Wright. They stormed out to a quick 10-0 first quarter lead but unraveled in a 26-10 loss.
"It's frustrating to move the ball up and down the field and not score, or get in the red zone and get a holding penalty," Webb said after that game. “It was frustrating not being able to finish. You know when you have a sophomore quarterback that you're going to go through some growing pains, but he did some really nice things."
Wright finished the opener going 16-for-24 with 138 yards passing yards and added another 38 yards on the ground.
Since then, the Red Elephants have back-to-back wins over Chattahoochee (44-0) and then a ranked Flowery Branch (42-35) team last week, and may have finally snagged that signature win. And Wright has been a huge catalyst as they have averaged 43 points a game.
Wright has been near-perfect completing 79.3 percent of his passes (46-of-58) for 590 yards and three touchdowns. He is utilizing every weapon available to him completing passes to 12 different receivers. Running back Naim Cheeks is beginning to heat up as well with 221 yards rushing and five touchdowns to go with 8 catches for 87 yards..
“That was a huge game for us mentally I think,” Webb said about snapping their three-game losing streak to the Falcons. “It has really given us some positive momentum moving into this week. I think it showed the kids that they can compete and play against a great defense.
“Baxter has really started to understand what he can do and how to use the guys out there. We’re excited to see how much better he can get. Naim brings a lot of balance and gives some really good matchups in open space.”
Howver, even with all the positivity over the last three weeks, the real season begins Friday night at City Park Stadium. The Red Elephants (2-1) will play host to Forsyth Central (1-2) to open both teams’ Region 6-7A schedule.
The teams also appear to be headed in opposite directions. The Bulldogs have gone from scoring 62 in their opener to being shut out last week, and from pitching a shutout in their opener to giving up 63 points in their last two games, both losses.
Webb isn’t listening to any of the white noise.
“You remember last year’s game, right?” he asked.
It’s hard not to. In one of the wildest finishes ever to a high school football game, the Red Elephants scored five points in the final 10 seconds to steal a 33-28 win in Cumming.
The Bulldogs had blocked a Gainesville field goal and returned it for a touchdown to cap a wild second half comeback in the waning seconds. But they were called for jumping over the line and the Red Elephants then booted a second try for a 31-28 lead with 10 seconds left. On the final play, the Red Elephants forced a Central fumble and recovered it in the end zone for a safety.
Forsyth Central this season is sporting a new coach in David Rooney, the Bulldogs defensive coordinator last year, and certainly remembers it all too well.
“After looking at the film, the refs apologized for making the wrong call so that was a tough one to take,” Rooney said. “It was a great high school football game that had a little bit of everything. The kids that returned this year definitely remember that one. We certainly feel like we won that game.”
Central is young overall in 2021 with an offensive line that is rebuilding with no seniors. But they have looked strong at times with newcomer senior running back Malachi McElroy having a breakout season with 355 yards (8.3 yards/carry, 2 TDs) and a pair of 100-yard games already this season.
Rooney said the play up front will be the key.
“Our philosophy is 4-yards a play and try to control the ball,” he said. “We did a good of that in our first game but the competition has gotten tougher each week and we have some guys that are still learning and growing. But we’re looking to go over (to Gainesville) and get things turned around. After all the craziness last year, anything can happen on a Friday night.”
Big offensive lines and bruising running backs have proven to be a difficult assignment for a rebuilding Gainesville defense so far. Gladiators’ running back Tylan Johnson ran for 144 yards in just over two quarters. Branch’s Myles Ivey had 88 yards and a score last week.
“Our defense is still trying to figure out who they are. I do think they're making a lot of progress, though,” Webb said. “Both Johns Creek and Branch with their running games have helped highlight some things we need to address. Better technique is needed but we’re making progress.
“Another key on defense has been finding the right combinations in the secondary. I think we’re starting to get there with that as well.”
However, Webb acknowledged that there is one streak that is almost always on their minds. And keeping that going depends on a quick start to the region schedule.
“Our playoff streak [of 21 consecutive seasons] means a lot to us,” Webb said. “The kids definitely understand the importance of region games. What I like is that they have already put the Branch game behind them.
“That was something that you never really know about until the next week begins after winning such an emotional rivalry game like that. They have put that one on the shelf. They came in this week ready to go and focused on Forsyth Central.”
Webb said they want, and probably need, a fast start in a Region 6-7A that went 16-7 in non-region play as a group and has just one team with a losing record (Forsyth Central).
“We definitely could use another good start to the region,” he said. “We expect every game to go down to the wire. There are a lot of good teams.
“But it’s just one game. It won’t be the end of the world or the season if we don’t come out with a win. But we’ve got a lot of momentum going right now and I would really hate to lose that.”