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High school football: Gainesville appreciates special season despite finals loss
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Gainesville faces Hughes in the Class 6A state championship on Dec. 9, 2022 in Atlanta. Photo by Lee Heard For The Times

Gainesville head football coach Josh Niblett had some very simple thoughts in the immediate aftermath of a 35-28 loss to top-ranked Langston Hughes in the Class 6A state championship game Friday at Georgia State’s Center Parc Stadium as to how his team would handle it.

He hoped his players’ assessment of a disappointing end to what in many ways was a historic 2022 campaign would essentially come in two stages.

“It’s always going to hurt,” Niblett, who guided the Red Elephants to a 14-1 record, a Region 8-6A championship and a state runner-up finish in his first season since coming to Gainesville from Alabama powerhouse Hoover, said shortly after Friday’s game. “But there will be a time when you can rest a little bit and look back and be proud of what you’ve been able to accomplish because these guys will go down in the history books at Gainesville just as far as what they’ve been able to do this year.”

After three days to process Friday’s game, and the season on the whole, it seems at least some of the Red Elephants have taken Niblett’s advice to heart.

Starting quarterback Baxter Wright didn’t mince words.

The season and everything the team accomplished during gave him an entirely different outlook on football.

“It just made me love football again,” the 6-foot-2, 163-pound junior said. “I’d lost a little love for it. (It was) not really getting burnt out, but I just lost love for it. This year just completely turned it around for me, made me love it again, made me love playing with my brothers. It’s been huge for me.”

It’s understandable why Wright, or any other veteran player who has been in Gainesville’s program for a while, would feel that way.

After a 5-5 season a year ago capped a stretch of six straight seasons with only one winning season, 2022 marked a resurgence of a program that ranks third in Georgia high school history with 772, plus an all-time .683 winning percentage.

The Red Elephants made its first state championship game appearance since claiming the program’s only title to date in 2012 and their first region title since the following year by taking the Region 8-6A title.

In addition, they also became just the second Gainesville team in the program’s 117-year history to win as many as 14 games in a single season, joining the 3A state runner-up team of 2009 under current Lanier Christian coach Bruce Miller.

That history isn’t lost on the players, particularly the ones like Wright, who grew up watching some of the best Red Elephant teams and players not all that long ago.

“It’s huge,” said Wright, who was just named Region 8-6A co-Offensive Player of the Year on Monday after finishing 223-of-307 passing for 3,343 yards and 40 touchdown passes, with only four interceptions and adding 563 yards and nine scores rushing on 102 carries. “Growing up watching (former Clemson star and current Cleveland Browns quarterback) Deshaun (Watson) and (former Alabama standout and NFL and Canadian Football League QB Blake) Sims and just dreaming of being in their shoes one day, and now I get to play quarterback for Gainesville High School. That’s always been a dream.

“This year, we had teachers coming up to all the football players and telling them how much they enjoyed the games. We haven’t had that the last couple of years, so it’s huge for us. (The historical achievements haven’t) really sunk in yet just because it just ended and we’re all still pretty upset what happened on Friday. But we’re all really excited about what we were able to accomplish this year. We know we’re not close to where we’re going to be next year.”

Re-establishing a winning culture which has been around in the not-too-distant past is just the kind of challenge that excited Niblett when he took the Gainesville job just about a year ago after guiding Hoover to five state titles and Oneonta to over the past 22 years.

Doing so, he says, was a process that began the very first day he stepped onto campus.

“That’s always huge, but as I (have said) before, us setting our culture was big for us last January, February and March,” Niblett said. “We didn’t even talk about football. It was just about us building our culture, how we wanted to act, what kind of students we want to be, how hard we want to work in the weight room.

“Once you establish that and understand the standard we’re going to be at and live at, then we can worry about the standard we want to play at. But I’m proud of our guys. To God be the glory, for sure.”

Even with Friday’s loss, experiencing the atmosphere and what it takes to get to the title game is something he hopes will benefit the underclassmen as they try to return in 2023.

However, Niblett’s thoughts were as much about the outgoing Red Elephant seniors and appreciating the contributions they made to helping the program climb back towards the top.

“The thing is, they got to come here and taste it,” Niblett said of his underclassmen. “We brought the kids down the day before and spent the night and treat them like professionals, and they acted like professionals. They got a great experience. The underclassmen, now they’ve been here … they want to get back.

“But (Friday) night is about all of our team. It’s about our seniors because they’re hurting right now. We’ll worry about next year later on, but (Friday) night’s about them. (Friday) night’s about consoling them. (Friday) night’s about still trying to teach them life lessons and wanting them to continue to make great choices, things that they’ve done and how they’ve changed their lives and been accountable and built a culture here that’s phenomenal.”

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