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High school football: Underdog status doesn't bother No. 4 Gainesville in 6A title game vs. top-ranked Hughes
Football2022
Gainesville's Darius Cannon (1) makes a grab for a touchdown against Roswell in the Class 6A state semifinals Dec. 2, 2022 in Powder Springs. Photo by Lee Heard For The Times

It’s not uncommon for sports coaches to reach into the biblical story of David and Goliath to help give their players a little extra inspiration when faced with a particularly formidable opponent in a big game.

That said, it might seem tempting to wonder if Gainesville coach Josh Niblett was thinking about use this kind of motivational tactic as his No. 4 Red Elephants prepare for their Class 6A state championship game against No. 1 Hughes.

After all, the Panthers (14-0) not only come into on Friday’s 7 p.m. kickoff at Georgia State’s Center Parc Stadium ranked in the top-25 nationally in seven different national polls, five of which are in the top 20, including being ranked as high as No. 11 by NationalHSFB.com.

So, does Niblett see a parallel between Friday’s title game and the biblical struggle between David and Goliath?

Well, yes and no. It depends on the context of that comparison.

“You know, I never really saw David as the underdog, just because David had a plan,” Niblett said. “David knew exactly what he had to do, and he was confident in his idea and who he was. So it depends on which way you look at it — by human standards or … by the standards of what it takes to be a champion.”

Niblett and the Red Elephants definitely have a plan heading into Friday’s game, though the task facing them may seem as daunting as it seemed when David squared off with Goliath in the first book of Samuel to many observers around the state.

That’s understandable considering how dominant Hughes has been throughout the 2022 campaign.

The Panthers’ margin of victory been less than 30 points only twice so far this season, with the lowest being a 47-21 win at McEachern all the way back in Week 2 of the season on Aug. 26.

And they haven’t scored any fewer than 40 points in their previous 14 games behind an offense led by at 3,800-yard passer (junior quarterback Prentiss Noland), a 1,000-yard receiver (senior Jaden Barnes) and not one, but two 1,000-yard rushers (senior Jekail Middlebrook and junior Justus Savage).

“Let’s just be honest, we’re not a little bit of an underdog. We’re a lot of an underdog, and that’s fine,” Niblett said. “But that doesn’t have to be the way we feel about it. I mean, that’s not how we see us. We feel like we’ve got a good football team.

“Now, we’re going to have to play extremely well. We’re going to have to play our best game, and we’re going to have to play that (way) every snap of the game. You can’t have a bad play. You just can’t. … We’ve got to be sound in what we’re doing. When we get opportunities to make plays, we’ve got to make plays. I mean, it’s the game within the game, and we’ve laid it out for our players.”

As formidable an opponent as Hughes is, it isn’t difficult to see where Niblett is coming from as to his confidence and that of his team.

Gainesville shares an identical 14-0 record with Hughes, appear in four different sets of national rankings, including as high as No. 51 in the Massey Ratings, and has put up some impressive numbers of its own this season.

The Red Elephants have scored 30 or more points in all but one of their wins, led by a 3,000-yard passer of their own (Baxter Wright), a near-1,800-yard rusher (Naim Cheeks) and five different players (Cheeks, Darius Cannon, Tre Reece, Travien Watson and Sky Niblett) with at least 500 yards receiving.

So it hasn’t taken much of a job of selling by the coaching staff to get the players to buy into believing they can claim the program’s first state title in a decade, and only the second in school history.

In fact, Niblett hasn’t seen himself or his staff as salesmen at all.

“We don’t sell, anyway,” Niblett said. “We don’t believe in selling and buying. We just don’t. We believe in trusting in what we’re doing. … Our kids trust us and we trust them, so that’s the way we’re going to go about it. Why would we change now?”

That level of trust has been apparent from the players since even before the 2022 campaign started, but has been particularly on display throughout the state playoffs, including last Friday’s 35-28 semifinal win over No. 3 Roswell.

Junior quarterback Baxter Wright said that belief and trust are why the Red Elephants set their bar high for themselves from the get go.

“Oh, 100 percent,” Wright, who has completed 198 of 277 passes with only four interceptions for 3,152 yards and 38 TDs for the season, said after Friday’s win. “I think that’s why we’re here (in the finals) now. That was everybody’s mindset at the beginning of the year. We wanted to go undefeated and go win it all.”

Likewise, senior receiver Darius Cannon has had that sense of trust in the team from the beginning, one he says has gotten even stronger with each win.

“Yeah, I always try to think positive,” Cannon said last Friday after hauling in a team-best five receptions for 78 yards and a touchdown and adding a 92-yard kickoff return for a score. “I’ve always prayed that we were going to do (well) in the regular season. When we went undefeated, I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do (well).’”

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