Saturday April 1st, 2023 12:27AM

ICYMI: Semifinal preview — GHS prepares for shot at state title game

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter

Gainesville came into the 2022 season with a new coach and hoping for a whole new attitude.

Both have been better than advertised.

The Red Elephants are 13-0 for the first time since 2009 and advanced to their first state semifinal since 2013 after holding off Houston County last week, 49-35, at City Park Stadium. The three playoff wins are their first since 2015.

Now, Gainesville will take on Roswell (12-1) on Friday night at McEachern Stadium (kickoff is 8 p.m.) in the Class 6A semifinals looking for its first championship game appearance since 2012. That year, Deshaun Watson led the Red Elephants to their only state title, a 49-13 win over Ware County at the Georgia Dome.

Head coach Josh Niblett, who came over from Hoover High in Alabama, has not been patient with a group that had won just 16 games in their previous three seasons. He said on the day of his arrival last December he came to the North Georgia mountains looking to rebrand and reshape the Red Elephants -- and that he also was looking to play for, and win, championships, not just games. He has them two games from that possibility and has instilled a sense of urgency and toughness not seen since the days of Watson.

Gainesville rallied from a 14-7 deficit last week to the Bears reeling off 35 consecutive points to pull away for the win.

Can they continue their longest win streak since that 2009 team, which won 14 straight before falling to Peach County 13-12, in the Class 3A title game? They face a tough Hornets squad that is among the most explosive in the state.

However, betting against the Red Elephants in 2022 has proved to be detrimental. They are the last of a dozen Northeast Georgia-area teams that began their playoff journeys last month still standing.

We'll find out around 10:30 p.m. Friday just where they stand, or if their magical run was cut out from under them.

(Games listed by classification, highest to lowest, in alphabetical order of visiting team)

NOTEBOOK: Four region champs are left standing -- Gainesville, Hughes, Rome, Roswell -- though Roswell won on the road in the quarterfinals. However, the road team has not fared well overall going just 5-23 in the first two rounds. ... But both 6A semifinal games will be played at neutral sites due to both Fulton County-based stadiums not meeting the required seating standards set by the GHSA. ... You must have offense to win in this classification. All four remaining teams are in the top six overall, with No. 1 Hughes (715 points, 55.0 ppg) leading the way. Rome (515, 39.6 ppg) is the lowest scoring team left. Hughes has been even more potent in the playoffs scoring 182 points (60.6 ppg) in three games. ... Rome leads 6A in defense, allowing just 107 points (8.2 ppg). Hughes is second (146, 11.2 ppg) while Gainesville has the lowest-rated remaining unit, giving up 188 points (14.46 ppg). The best matchup of the playoffs could be the Hughes offense vs. the Rome defense. Rome has not given up more than 28 in any game this season, with 5 shutouts, while the Panthers have not scored less than 41 in any game in 2022. ... Hughes is looking for its second-straight finals after falling to Buford last season in the championship game. The Panthers have never won a state championship in football. Gainesville has not reached a finals since 2012 with Deshaun Watson when the Red Elephants won the Class 3A title. Rome is looking for its first finals since winning back-to-back 5A titles in 2016-17. Roswell is looking for its first finals since winning two straight titles in 2015 (6A) and 2016 (7A).

Records: Hornets (12-1, No. 1 seed Region 7-6A); Red Elephants (13-0, No. 1 seed Region 8-6A)
Last week: Roswell beat Thomas County Central, 42-34; Gainesville beat Houston County, 49-35.
Where: McEachern Stadium, Powder Springs
Radio: WDUN AM 55/102.9 FM WDUN
Time: 8 p.m.
The Statisticals: Gainesville leads the series 1-0. The Red Elephants won 14-6 in the 1985 Class 3A quarterfinals. This is Gainesville’s first semifinal berth since 2013, Deshaun Watson’s final season. The Hornets are into the semifinals for the first time since making back-to-back finals appearances in 2015-16. Roswell’s only loss came to Class 7A semifinalists Milton, 14-7, on the road. Both offenses are potent. The Hornets are third in 6A averaging 41.9 ppg. The 545 points are 2nd all-time in program history and average-wise is the best in their history. The  2015 title team scored 625 points (41.6 ppg) in 15 games. Jr. QB KJ Smith has thrown for 2,489 yards (3rd in 6A) with 31 TDs and 7 INTs on the season. They have 5 players with 19 or more catches, led by Sr. Christopher Elko (42 rec., 813 yards, 9 TD). Sr. Ethan Crite, however, is their game-breaker. Crite has 19 catches for 596 yards, a 31.4 ypc average, and 8 TDs. It also will be the third straight game for the Red Elephants to face a potential all-state RB. Jr. Nykahi Davenport is among the state's best with 1,838 yards (153.2 yards/game) with 22 TDs and 12 100-yard games. He has been even more dangerous in the playoffs with 668 yards through three games (222.7 yards/game). Gainesville Sr. RB Naim Cheeks is among the state’s most versatile players. Last week he had 138 yards rushing and 102 yards receiving with 3 combined TDs. Cheeks now has 2,195 all-purpose yards (1,644, 8 100-yard games, 20 TD rushing; 27 rec., 517 yards, 3 TD receiving; 34 return yards). Jr. QB Baxter Wright is just 58 yards shy of 3,000 (2,942 yards, 72%, 34 TD, 4 INT) after last week's 278-yard, 3 TD performance. Tre Reece and Darius Cannon could be huge factors on special teams with nearly 500 yards in the return game and each has returned a kickoff for a TD this season. Reece delivered the dagger to the Bears last week with a 95-yard kickoff return for a score.
What to watch for: The Gainesville defense vs. the Roswell offense. It seems the same every week but the Red Elephants must once-again try and slow down one of the state’s top offenses and top running backs. In each of the first three rounds they held their opponent to nearly half of their season average on the ground. Slowing down Davenport and the Hornets’ ground game will be the key. They had 9 TFL last week, including three huge sacks, and have forced 20 turnovers to go with 85 TFL on the season. GHS Tennessee-commit Jeremiah Telander leads the team in tackles with 92, including 10 TFL and 4 sacks, and also has an INT..

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  • Associated Tags: High school football, Gainesville football
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