Gainesville was looking for a big-time atmosphere to kick off the 2021 football season.
With a matchup against John’s Creek just a few days away, that’s exactly what the Red Elephants will get at City Park Stadium.
As part of the Corky Kell Classic, the 11-game premier opening weekend with top contests of statewide powers, Gainesville’s opener will be at 5:30 p.m. Friday and broadcast on Peachtree TV.
“This is a game we’ve been talking about for months,” Gainesville coach Heath Webb said. “We’ve put a lot of eggs in this basket and now it’s go time.”
While a high-scoring matchup seems possible with two explosive offenses, anything is possible with the Week 1 jitters and any added distraction with television cameras populating the sideline.
“Since it’s an afternoon game, those TV timeouts for water breaks are going to be welcomed,” Webb said.
This is the first appearance for both Gainesville and John’s Creek in the Corky Kell Classic.
Gainesville’s coach said they have amended the logistics of preparing for a late-afternoon kickoff.
“We’re going to have a couple extra team meals and a truck load of Gatorade,” Webb said. “This is a game that could be played 100 percent during daylight hours.”
Fifth-year Gladiators (4-6 last season) coach Matt Helmerich, who was formerly an assistant coach at national-powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), has been a part of plenty of nationally-televised games.
“It just adds to the atmosphere when the kids and fans know they’re on TV,” Helmerich said. “I am thrilled for our kids, our program and our community that we get to take part in an event like this.”
The Red Elephants bring one of their most explosive offenses in many years to the field, led by sophomore quarterback Baxter Wright, who is entering his first season as QB1.
Wright, who won his first game as a starter against Forsyth Central in 2020, is a highly-anticipated college prospect for the Class of 2024.
“We expect Baxter to get better every week, but we have to remember he’s still a sophomore,” Webb said. “There’s going to be some highs and lows. We have to tolerate those lows and battle through it.”
On the other sideline, John’s Creek is equally talented.
For the Gladiators, senior dual-threat athlete Kyle Durham is now their quarterback.
Last season, he accounted for 2,700 yards at South Forsyth.
John’s Creek’s new quarterback moved to the school after the matchup against Gainesville was scheduled for the Corky Kell Classic.
Gainesville is well familiar with going against Durham, a First-Team All-Region selection in 6-7A in 2020.
“(Durham) is a dynamite ball player,” Webb said. “We know what he’s capable of doing. The upside is that he’s not in our region any more.”
For the Red Elephants, their added depth at wide receiver should be able to reduce any pressure on Wright. Also, being able to rotate players in and out will be a huge lift, if the weather is especially hot on Friday.
Added to its pool of talent at wide receiver, Gainesville now has Macere Walker (who played in 2020 at East Hall), Dre Raven (who was a basketball standout at Cherokee Bluff) and 6-foot-2 junior Ja’Quez Sims.
The Red Elephants were already blessed with talented, returning junior Naim Cheeks (1,270 yards in 2020) who is a general big-playmaking threat out of the backfield.
“Naim has the ability to catch a bunch of balls and he’s going to run for a lot of yards, too,” Webb said.
Up front, Gainesville’s offensive line is anchored by senior Elijah Ruiz, who is now at left tackle, after starting at center for three seasons.
John’s Creek is also blessed with talent on offense, Helmerich said.
The Gladiators, who won 10 games in 2019, return three starters on the offensive line, led by Tyler Gibson, Max Thayer and Chris Oh.
It’s front five averages 6-3, 265 across the line, John’s Creek’s coach said.
“This is the biggest and strongest offensive line we’ve had in my five years,” Helmerich said.
At wide receiver, the Gladiators have ample athletes with Terian Williams, Brandon Palmer and first-year football player Josh Thompson in their stable.
“Thompson can fly!” Helmerich said.
Webb said that facing John’s Creek in the season kickoff is one of many good tests Gainesville will have to get ready for the six-game slate against Forsyth County’s biggest schools in Region 6-7A.
“John’s Creek reminds me a lot of the teams in our region, so it will be a great test,” Webb said.
Next week, Gainesville will visit Chattahoochee.
On Sept. 3, the Red Elephants play their annual rivalry matchup against Flowery Branch at City Park Stadium.
Gainesville vs. John's Creek, 5:30 p.m., Corky Kell Classic
Cherokee Bluff at Johnson
West Hall at East Jackson
North Hall at Paulding County
Flowery Branch at St. Pius X
Lakeview Academy at Mount Paran Christian
Riverside Military vs. Notre Dame Prep