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Saturday January 28th, 2023 7:07PM

3rd round playoffs: Wright, GHS roll into 1st semis since 2013

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter
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GAINESVILLE, Ga. — There is no time like the present when trying to accomplish something.

And the 2022 Gainesville football team is taking full advantage of the present while also playing like there is no tomorrow.

The Red Elephants used big plays on offense and got a solid bend-but-don’t-break effort from their defense in holding off Houston County Friday night, 49-35, in the quarterfinals of the Class 6A playoffs at City Park Stadium.

Gainesville (13-0) now sits within one win of playing for its first state title since Deshaun Watson led them to the Class 3A championship in 2012. The Red Elephants will travel to Roswell next week with a berth in the championship game on the line.

First-year Gainesville coach Josh Niblett mentioned last week they might possibly consider discussing state titles when they got at least to the semifinals. They’re here now after Friday night’s win. However, he still balked at wanting to talk about the future.

“We can’t talk about state titles yet,” he said. “We have to win this game (vs. Roswell). This game is huge for our program, huge for every one of our players, huge for our community. It’s a great opportunity for us. That’s all we need to be focused on.”

Focus did not seem to be a problem at the beginning against Houston County, which was looking for its first semifinal appearance since 1993.

The defense certainly seemed dialed in early, stopping the high-flying Bears, who came in averaging 43.4 points/game, on their first two possessions, including a pair of sacks by Luke Cooper and Jeremiah Telander.

The offense cashed in quickly as well when junior quarterback Baxter Wright connected with a wide-open Naim Cheeks for a 65-yard touchdown pass on their third play from scrimmage.

Wright was clutch when needed, going 13-of-17 for 268 yards and 3 TDs. He also added a critical 45-yard touchdown run on a 3rd-and-17 that gave the Red Elephants a 21-14 lead late in the second quarter. They never trailed again.

“They kept bringing pressure, and the line picked it up well, and I just took off,” Wright said of the big run. “People probably underestimate my speed a little bit.”

That was part of a 35-point explosion that turned a 14-7 deficit into a 42-14 lead, capped by Wright’s 56-yard bomb to Tre Reece midway through the third quarter. Reece also had a huge game with six catches for 109 yards and added a 95-yard kickoff return in the third quarter to break the Bears' spirit.

Naim Cheeks rambled 65 yards for a score on the opening play of the second half. He later added a 41-yard scoring run and finished with 138 yards, giving him nearly 600 yards in three playoff games with six touchdowns.

Wright also had a 17-yard TD pass to Sky Niblett with just 51 seconds left in the first half during the offensive show.

“Baxter played a heck of a game,” Niblett said. “He was learning the offense early (in the season). Our offense isn’t easy. He’s done a good job of putting the ball where it needs to be and giving guys a chance to go make plays.

“We were also able to establish our run game and take some shots downfield. The kickoff return was huge.”

The sacks by Cooper and Telander helped set the tone. The Red Elephants would eventually surrender 546 total yards and 35 points, both season highs against the Red Elephants, to sophomore quarterback phenom Antwann Hill and the Bears. Hill passed for 394 yards and 3 TDs but for the third straight week in the playoffs, Gainesville held a team well under their season average on the ground.

“We knew coming in how explosive they were on offense. I thought our defense did a great job of getting stops when we needed stops,” Niblett said. 

Wright said they still haven’t shown everything they can do.

“There are so many things you can do in this offense. I still don’t think we’ve played our best game yet, and we’re just scratching the surface,” he said.

After Gainesville grabbed the initial lead on Wright and Cheek’s big pass play, the Bears' defense forced a pair of short Gainesville punts to grab the lead.

The first one, a short 18-yard kick, set up Hill’s 35-yard TD pass to Kale Woodburn on the next play to tie the game. A second short punt by Gainesville set up the Bears again as Hill hit Arthur Brown on the next play again for a 32-yard touchdown pass for a 14-7 lead. Woodburn finished with 9 catches for 184 yards and 3 TDs

The Gainesville offense took over from there, and after the dust settled, Wright and a group that had won just 16 games over their previous three seasons can now see the finish line.

“I’ve played with these seniors since I was 8, and we always talked about this being the biggest thing, and now we’re just one step closer,” he said.


SCORING SUMMARY
Houston Co..........0...14....14....7 -- 35
Gainesville...........7....21....21....0 -- 49

First Quarter
G -- Cheeks 65 pass from Wright (White kick) 7-0, 7:49

Second Quarter
H -- Woodburn 35 pass from Hill (Bryant kick) 7-7, 10:01
H -- Brown 32 pass from Hill (Bryant kick) 14-7, 8:04
G -- Cheeks 41 run (White kick) 14-14, 7:05
G -- Wright 45 run (White kick) 21-14, 2:17
G -- Niblett 17 pass from Wright (White kick) 28-14, 0:51

Third Quarter
G -- Cheeks 65 run (White kick) 35-14, 11:47
G -- Reece 56 pass from Wright (White kick) 42-14, 7:01
H -- Woodburn 39 pass from Hill (Bryant kick) 42-21, 4:59
G -- Reece 95 kickoff return (White kick) 49-21, 4:43
H -- Jordan 1 run (Bryant kick) 49-28, 0:11

Fourth Quarter
H -- Woodburn 16 pass from Hill (Bryant kick) 49-35, 8:29

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