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Gainesville rally falls short to West Forsyth, 32-30
West Forsyth’s Tanner Bridges loses the ball with Gainesville High’s Chase England (66), Devan Stringer (28) and Damian Grayson bearing down during the first half of their game ay City Park Thursday night.

Wolverines 32, Red Elephants 30

Difference maker: West Forsyth linebacker Josh Salo intercepted two passes on the night to end a pair of promising Gainesville drives.

Stat that matters: Four turnovers for the Gaineville offense, which outgained West Forsyth in total yards.

Turning point: Down by three points but driving into West Forsyth territory, Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson’s deep pass was picked off by Wolverines cornerback Will Brown, who returned the ball all the way to the Gainesville 33 yard line. West Forsyth scored on the next play to go ahead two scores.

Who’s next: Gainesville travels to Buford on Sept. 7; West Forsyth hosts Flowery Branch on Sept. 7 in Cumming.

As West Forsyth coach Frank Hepler said after the game, it came down to who made the fewest mistakes.

Thursday night at City Park Stadium, Gainesville made too many, and the Wolverines held on for a 32-30 win in the season opener for both teams.

“Missed opportunities,” said Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller. “And we turned it over a bunch tonight.”

A team that Miller said turned the ball over 14 times in 14 games last year threw four interceptions against the Wolverines. And yet, after allowing 32 first-half points, Gainesville’s defense kept the game alive with a second-half shutout.

“We just shot ourselves in the foot with our mistakes,” said Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson, who accounted for four touchdowns but also four turnovers. “But we need to come back motivated.

“We don’t even look in the past. After tonight this game is in the past, and we’ve got nine to go.”

Starting with another stiff test at Buford on Sept. 7, a team that beat Gainesville 49-0 to open the 2011 season.

Miller is optimistic this time.

“They say most teams improve more from the first to the second game than any other time during the year,” he said. “That’s our challenge as a team, because it doesn’t get any easier.”

The Wolverines, now in Class AAAAAA, were a good first test of what could be a challenging season for Gainesville, which moved up two classes to AAAAA.

Behind the arm and legs of quarterback Drew Erdely (110 yards passing, 67 rushing and two scores) and running backs Jake Wieczorek (98 yards rushing, one touchdown) and Trevor O’Brien (77 yards rushing, one score), West Forsyth took advantage of Gainesville’s mistakes and ran the clock well enough to keep the Red Elephants from finishing a second-half rally.

Gainesville had the ball in West Forsyth territory three times early in the second half, but couldn’t convert until a fourth trip down with 5:26 remaining that resulted in a 5-yard touchdown run by Watson to get the hosts within two scores at 32-23.

The Gainesville defense forced West Forsyth to punt, but once again the Red Elephants made a costly mistake.Wolverines linebacker Josh Salo, who had already recorded one interception in the first half, grabbed another in West Forsyth territory to end yet another promising drive with 2:35 remaining.

After another defensive stop, Watson bookended the night with his second touchdown pass of the day to Lahius Leverette, who had put the hosts ahead 7-0 early. The second grab brought Gainesville within two points, but with only seven seconds left.

The Red Elephants were unable to recover the onside kick, and West forsyth sealed the win.

“It has to rank up there with our top wins,” Hepler said. “Gainesville, they’re a great team and they’re going to win a lot of games this year.

“I was just honored that (Miller) asked me to play them.”

If last season’s early loss to Buford was any indication, the game may lead to better days for both programs. Last season Gainesville turned around from the loss and won 12 straight.

A year later, the Red Elephants were more than competitive in the opener. The offense racked up 429 total yards to West Forsyth’s 353, and Watson finished 29 of 45 for 304 yards, two touchdowns passing and four interceptions, but also ran for 60 yards and two more scores.

Leverette and Tray Harrison each recorded 81 receiving yards to lead a 10-deep receiving corps.

The game started with both offenses firing.

Watson went 4 of 4 passing while leading Gainesville 63 yards on the game’s opening drive, including two passes for Leverette for a total of 46 yards, including a long throw down the sideline and a 5-yard touchdown grab on a quick slant to put the hosts ahead 7-0. The catches were the senior receivers’ only two of the half.

West Forsyth turned right around and marched 64 yards on 11 plays, including four first downs, to even the score on a 19-yard touchdown pass from Erdely to Brian Porter.

After a failed drive by each offense on the next series, Watson finished a 10-play, 58-yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown run. After a successful two-point conversion run by Quamon Peoples, Gainesville went ahead 15-7 with 11:45 left in the half.

The Wolverines took the momentum right back after Wieczorek returned the kickoff to the Gainesville 17. The Red Elephants defense held firm, but West Forsyth kicker Timmy Hartshorn drilled a 32-yard kick to get the Wolverines within five.

Then the West Forsyth defense did its part, forcing Gainesville into a punt, followed by two interceptions on the next three Red Elephants drives.

The Wolverines’ offense took advantage, turning the forced punt into a 2-yard touchdown run by Erdely which, along with a two-point conversion, gave the visitors their first lead of the night at 18-15 with 5:39 left in the half.

Gainesville began to drive on the next series, but Watson deep pass toward the end zone was intercepted by Will Brown on the 5 yard line and returned to the Gainesville 33 yard line.

After a personal foul against Gainesville, Wieczorek ran 18 yards for the score and a 25-15 lead.

Driving in West Forsyth territory once again, Watson’s pass was deflected and Wolverines linebacker Salo dived to snare the interception. West Forsyth turned the second turnover into a second touchdown on a 14-yard run by O’Brien.

Gainesville got the ball back with a little over a minute remaining in the half, but could not take advantage.

At the half both teams were nearly equal in regard to yardage, with West Forsyth accumulating 210 total yards of offense and Gainesville 218.

Both quarterbacks led the way, with Erdely finishing the half 7 of 9 passing for 79 yards and a touchdown, along with 60 yards rushing and a score.

Watson finished the half 12 for 18 for 151 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, and added 42 yards rushing and a score.

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