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High school football: Gainesville clobbers Sprayberry to open Class 6A state tournament
Gainesville's Naim Cheeks runs over a Sprayberry defender during the first-round playoff game Nov. 11, 2022 in Gainesville.

The remnants of Hurricane Nicole may have moved out of north Georgia well in advance of Gainesville’s first-round Class 6A state playoff game against Sprayberry.

However, the No. 4 Red Elephants and Yellow Jackets provided plenty of lightning throughout the evening, with the two teams combined for eight scoring plays of 27 yards or longer.

The good news for Gainesville was that it finished with two more of those explosive scores, and added a pair of shorter scoring plays to run away with a 51-21 victory Friday night at City Park Stadium.

Baxter Wright finished the night 16 of 23 for 299 yards and five touchdown passes, while Naim Cheeks provided a balanced attack with 252 yards and two more TDs on 17 carries as the Red Elephants (11-0) amassed 593 yards of total offense to advance to the second round, where a date with South Paulding (8-3) awaits.

And the latter point is what pleased Gainesville coach Josh Niblett the most about the evening.

“The bottom line is we want to win,” Niblett said. “I don’t care if we had to rush 60 times to win the game or to throw it 50 times to win the game. We want to be balanced, but we also can’t let people put seven … or eight hats out in the box and leave us out there one-on-one and not take advantage of it.

“We’re explosive out on the perimeter. We’ve got really good speed. (Sprayberry) played off of us and we were able to work some double moves and things like that, and Baxter did a good job of putting the ball out there.”

But so did Sprayberry (4-7) quarterback Kemari Nix, at least at times.

The 6-foot, 190-pound junior only completed 11 of 23 passes, but those completions went for 298 yards, including three that wound up as touchdowns of more than 30 yards apiece to sophomore receiver Mark Manfred, who finished the night with four catches for 190 yards.

Part of that may have been a sacrifice by the Gainesville defense to keep Nix, who came into the night with 1,013 yards on the season from doing damage with his legs, which the Red Elephants did by holding him to minus-11 yards Friday night, and holding the Yellow Jackets to 25 yards on the ground as a whole.

However, Niblett knows that is an area the Red Elephants must improve on next week.

“One of the things we talked about all week was doing a good job of making (Sprayberry) snap it and snap it over and over again,” Niblett said. “We gave up two big throws on third down in the first half, which is uncharacteristic of who we are. We’ll get that fixed, but … I’m proud of our kids.”

Cheeks started the offensive fireworks on Gainesville’s opening possession of the game after a three-and-out by the defense by bursting up the middle for 47 yards for a touchdown for a 7-0 Red Elephants’ lead just 3:06 after the opening kickoff.

It was the first of many big runs by the senior running back, including chunk plays of 25, 22 and 59 yards en route to 177 yards on just 10 carries in the first half, some through big holes and others by breaking tackles.

“It was just running forward, keep pounding it,” Cheeks said of the key to his big night. “(Everybody) stepped up. They knew what was on the table. We put everything on the table and just prepared for this week, and we were ready to go.”

But Sprayberry struck back with a big play of its own on the ensuing possession after the Cheeks TD.

Facing third and 15 from his own 32, Kemari Nix found Mark Manfred, who had gained a step on his defender down the right sideline.

The 6-2, 175-pound sophomore dragged several Gainesville defenders with him the final 10 or so yards to complete the 68-yard TD to pull the Yellow Jackets even at 7-all with 7:02 left in the first quarter.

But after an exchange of punts, the Gainesville passing game got rolling behind Wright, who followed up two big runs by Cheeks to hit Sky Niblett for a 27-yard scoring strike to put the Red Elephants back in front at 14-7 with 2:26 left in the opening frame.

After a three-and-out by the defense, Wright needed only one snap to light up the scoreboard again.

This time, he hit Tre Reece along the left sideline and the senior made a slick move around his defender to break away for a 44-yard touchdown to extend the lead to 21-7 with 14.7 left in the quarter.

Wright then capped a pair of lengthy drives in the second quarter for scores, hitting Travien Watson from 39 yards out with 6:44 left in the half and Sky Niblett for 18 yards at the 1:29 mark to balloon the Gainesville lead to 35-7.

But Nix wasn’t done, as he once again found Manfred behind the Gainesville secondary for a big play, this one for 78 yards on the half’s final play for a score that cut the Red Elephants’ lead to 35-14 heading into intermission.

After Gainesville was stopped short on fourth down at the Sprayberry 33 on its first possession of the second half, Cheeks kick-started the offense on its second possession, taking the first snap after a punt 55 yards for a score that extended the lead to 42-14 with 9:06 left in the third quarter.

Then, following an Elias Ballard interception and 25-yard return out of the end zone, the Red Elephants drove 75 yards in just six plays, with Wright completing three passes on the march, including the final 7-yard completion to Reece for the score that ballooned the lead to 49-14 with 5:42 left in the period.

The Gainesville defense then got sloppy on Sprayberry’s next drive by being flagged three times for 45 yards in penalties — just part of a night in which the Red Elephants committed 13 infractions for 114 yards.

Nix took advantage when he hooked up with Manfred once again, this time from 30 yards out to cut the deficit to 49-21 with 3:49 left in the quarter.

But as Jackets head coach Brett Vavra pointed out, his team simply couldn’t keep pace with Gainesville, despite some big plays through the air throughout the evening.

“They’re really fast,” Vavra said of the Red Elephants. “We knew that coming in. They’re really good at the skill positions, and they’re really tough to tackle, and that’s why they present so many problems because you’ve got to defend them in space, but you’ve (also) got to stop the running backs.

“So they spread you thin, and … we just didn’t tackle real well (Friday) night, and of course, they’re good. I’ve got to give them credit. They make you defend the field with all 11 players. … And they were really good up front on both sides of the ball. I’m not going to say we underestimated them, but we thought we would have a little more success against their offensive line, but they were really good and played fast and physical, and we struggled to run the ball.”

Gainesville put up the final points on the night when Nix was called for intentional grounding in the end zone under heavy pressure with 51.4 seconds left.

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