Tuesday February 27th, 2024 7:48AM

2nd round playoffs: GHS continues playoff roll, heads to 1st Elite 8 since '14

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter

GAINESVILLE, Ga. — After nearly seven years without a playoff win, the current Gainesville squad is proving that the playoffs are very much to their liking.

A powerful Gainesville offense piled up 507 yards and a physical defensive effort held Class 6A’s top rusher to less than 100 yards to push the Red Elephants into their first Elite 8 round since 2014 with a 42-21 win over South Paulding Friday night at City Park Stadium.

As a program, Gainesville (12-0) had lost six straight playoff games going back to the 2015 season, one of their longest such streaks in program history. These Red Elephants, however, are 2-0 in the 2022 playoffs, both coming at home, where they will be next week when they play host to Houston County for a spot in the semifinals. Houston County rallied to beat North Atlanta, 41-31, on Friday.

“I’m so proud of these guys,” Gainesville coach Josh Niblett said. “They work hard every week to get better and I think this shows that they are. For the caliber of team we just played, this was one of our best games.”

Junior quarterback Baxter Wright threw for 256 yards and 4 TDs, senior running back Naim Cheeks ran for 205 yards and two scores, and seniors Darius Cannon and Tre Reece combined for 9 catches for 225 yards and 4 TDs.

But it was senior linebacker Jeremiah Telander and the defense that set the tone despite falling behind 7-0. The Tennessee-commit had a sack and two tackles for loss in the first two South Paulding possessions and they snatched a pair of turnovers -- a Cash O’Callaghan interception and a Elias Ballard forced fumble on a 55-yard pass play -- to keep momentum on their side.

The more impressive stat, however, was the Red Elephants holding Power 5 prospect and Class 6A leading rusher Jamarion Wilcox more than 100 yards below his average and the Spartans to just over half of their season average. Wilcox, who came in with over 2,000 yards and averaging 187 yards/game with 29 touchdowns, finished with just 86 yards on 20 carries and no scores.

“We told the kids all week you have to tackle that guy and our guys did a heck of a job of getting him down to the ground,” Niblett said. “We were able to take the run game away from them and make them one-dimensional and that’s what we talked about that we needed to do to be able to win.”

The Spartans (8-4) managed just 143 yards on the ground on 28 carries, with 72 coming on one play, a Hayden Jackson reverse for a touchdown in the third quarter.

“We just tried to stay with our responsibilities and not try to do too much and stay with our gaps and fill the holes with a pop,” Telander said. “I thought we did that early and I think that really made a difference the rest of the game.”

The special teams also turned in a huge momentum-changer as Dre Raven blocked a 20-yard Maddox Driver field goal attempt late in the second quarter with the score tied 7-7. The offense then responded with its best drive of the half going 82 yards in just 6 plays, getting a 27-yard TD pass from Wright to Cannon with just 20 seconds left in the half for a 14-7 lead.

“That was a huge play for us, being able to then turn that around for a touchdown,” Niblett said of the field goal block. “Coach (Riley) Niblett made a great call on the block and Dre was able to get to it.”

Gainesville opened the second half with a 69-yard drive, capped by a 13-yard scoring pass from Wright to Reece for a 21-7 lead. The Spartans never got closer than 14 the rest of the way.

Niblett said this group is still growing and found itself behind for the first time since the North Forsyth game nearly a month ago. He was more than pleased with their response.

“There was some ebb-and-flow in the game when there were times where they had the momentum and we had to snatch it back,” he said. “We did a good job of that and that’s when you define who you are as a team and how you’re growing in your culture.”

The Spartans did grab the first lead late in the first quarter when Kasen Weisman connected with Josiah Harris on a 5-yard TD pass for a 7-0 lead. Gainesville answered that with an 83-yard bomb from Wright to Reece on a 3rd-and-16 call.

Ballard’s forced fumble came after the Spartans’ DJ Reese, who had 5 catches for 144 yards, had taken a Weisman pass to the Red Elephants 10 after a 55-yard gain only to have Ballard punch the ball out.

The 21 points for the Spartans was their second-lowest output of the season. They came into Friday's matchup having scored 28 points or more nine times in 11 games.

"I think we're just now getting started," Telander said. "This group can be great. We haven't even come close to playing our best game. We're excited about going to the third round. We're ready to go."

S. Paulding.........7....0....7......7 -- 21
Gainesville.........7....7...14....14 -- 42

First Quarter
S -- Harris 5 pass from Weisman (Driver kick) 7-0, 4:00
G -- Reece 83 pass from Wright (White kick) 7-7, 1:05

Second Quarter
G -- Cannon 27 pass from Wright (White kick) 14-7, 0:20

Third Quarter
G -- Reece 13 pass from Wright (White kick) 21-7, 8:40
G -- Cheeks 7 run (White kick) 28-7, 2:00
S -- Jackson 72 run (Driver kick) 28-14, 1:38

Fourth Quarter
G -- Cannon 24 pass from Wright (White kick) 35-14, 8:00
S -- Bobbit 3 pass from Weisman (Driver kick) 35-21, 3:39
G -- Cheeks 17 run (White kick) 42-21, :40

  • Associated Categories: Sports, High School Sports, Friday Game Night
  • Associated Tags: High school football, Gainesville football
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