Tapped out of energy from a three-hour slugfest and numb from freezing temperatures most of the night, Gainesville’s players were still able to celebrate following Friday’s playoff opener against Creekview.
The Red Elephants (9-2) endured six lead changes versus an explosive Grizzlies offense, thanks in large part to two second-half interceptions to secure a 42-37 win in the first round of the Class AAAAA state tournament at City Park Stadium.
“It’s emotional to win a game like this,” said Gainesville’s Messiah Dorsey, who caught two touchdowns and threw for another. “It feels wonderful because we stayed up and kept fighting, and we got it done.”
With the win, Gainesville advances to face Harris County in the second round on Friday in Hamilton. The teams met just two years ago in the state quarterfinals, a game also played in West Georgia.
Chris Williamson and Toddrick Turner had the big interceptions that helped wrap up the win for the Red Elephants. However, the game came down to the end with Creekview (6-5) in possession of the ball in the final minute, before turning the ball over on its own side of the field.
Before that, it was back and forth all night with both programs trading touchdown blows all night. The Red Elephants secured its first comfortable lead of the game with Michael Byrd’s only touchdown run from the 3, making their lead 42-31 and 10:48 left to play.
It was a career-best 226 yards on 27 carries for Byrd, his fourth straight game to go over 100 on the ground. His previous best was 211 in 2011 at West Hall.
“These last four games, Michael Byrd has been unbelievable,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said.
Despite the terrific night for Byrd and Dorsey, Creekview kept it close until the end. Trailing 42-31, the Grizzlies responded with a four-minute drive, capped with Kyle Wilkie’s 24-yard touchdown pass to Chris Reddick. Creekview kept its touchdown drive alive with Chandler Wold’s 14-yard catch on fourth down, deep in Gainesville territory, after it was initially tipped by a Red Elephants defender.
In the third quarter, Dorsey scored on a pair of 23-yard touchdown throws from quarterback Mikey Gonzalez. Both of his touchdown catches were an immediate answer to Creekview scores. Creekview regained the lead with 6:04 left in the third quarter on Smith’s 6-yard run. After Dorsey’s next touchdown catch, Ewers (six catches for 98 yards) took the kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.
Even with the constant change of momentum throughout the game, Miller said his team showed a tremendous amount of poise down the stretch to win a hard-fought game.
“These kids showed so much resiliency tonight and found a way to win,” said Miller, who is taking the program into the second round for the seventh straight year.
Byrd was consistent running the ball all night for Gainesville. He had nine carries of more than 10 yards.
Trailing 17-14 late in the second quarter, he carried the ball for Gainesville on its first two possessions of its drive for gains of 46 and 32 yards. His brother, Chris, punched it into the end zone on the next play from the 4.
In the first half, Dorsey gave Gainesville a big lift early with a 37-yard throw to Rodney Lackey for a touchdown. Lackey was able to come down with the ball against the defender at about the 4, then muscled his way the final few yards in for the score.
Chris Byrd, who was injured much of the regular season for Gainesville, recovered a fumble on Creekview’s next drive. After some costly first-half errors by the Red Elephants, the Grizzlies came back to tie the score at 14-14 with Smith’s run from the 7 with 4:53 left to play before halftime. On Gainesville’s next possession, Wold intercepted a pass for Creekview, setting up Lalo Pena’s 42-yard field goal for its first lead of the night at 17-14.
Both quarterbacks were first to score. Gainesville’s Gonzalez ran it in from the 14 early in the first half to go ahead 7-0. Creekview answered with Wilkie’s run from the 3 to tie it 7-7 with 1:02 left in the opening quarter.
Some of Gainesville’s mistakes that kept it close most of the night included a dropped pass in the end zone and three dropped balls by defenders.
Still, the name of the game at this point in the season is to just find a way to survive and advance. A quick-striking bunch for the Red Elephants made sure that happened to keep its playoff run alive.
“At this point in the season, a win is a win,” said Red Elephants linebacker J.D. Sosebee.
Harris County advanced with a 33-31 win against Warner Robins.