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High school football: Gainesville eager for Thanksgiving practice ahead of 6A quarterfinals against Houston County
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Gainesville quarterback Baxter Wright scans the field against South Paulding in the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs Nov. 19, 2022 at City Park Stadium. - photo by Bill Murphy

Traditionally, Thanksgiving is a day of family, fun, food and the unofficial kickoff for the overall holiday season.

It is also, as the name suggests, a day to give thanks for anything or everything one sees fit.

Ask a select number of high school football players or coaches throughout the country what they are most thankful for and they will probably tell answer, “To be practicing on Thanksgiving Day.”

Of course, doing so means in most states mean that team has a playoff game on Black Friday to prepare for.

Few teams in Georgia are as thankful to be one of those teams gearing up for one of those games as No. 4 Gainesville (12-0), which will be practicing on Thanksgiving Day to get ready for Friday’s Class 6A quarterfinal game against 10th-ranked Houston County (10-2) at City Park Stadium.

That’s because it is the first time the Red Elephants will be doing so since 2014, which was the last year in a run of seven-straight trips to the state quarterfinals, or better.

So for all of the players, it means their first experience of a unique practice schedule for the entire week leading up to Friday’s game that players and coach cherish.

“I’ve wanted to do it my whole high school career, and this is my first chance,” said senior running back Naim Cheeks, who posted his second straight 200-yard game with 206 yards and two touchdowns in last Friday’s 42-21 second-round win over South Paulding. “So I’m going to take advantage.”

Cheeks is hardly alone.

Practicing on Thanksgiving Day seems like old hat to Red Elephants head coach Josh Niblett, who has done so eight times in his 22 seasons prior to coming to Gainesville at Hoover High School in Alabama, where the state championship games are played the day after Thanksgiving.

However, the veteran coach says that it is something special that never gets old, especially when it’s been a few years since he’s been able to conduct such a practice.

“I’ll be honest with you. The semifinals in (Class) 7A at Hoover, we lost the last (few years),” Niblett said. “The next week (in the finals) was Thanksgiving. So I haven’t gotten to practice on Thanksgiving in probably four or five years. So I’m so excited about it.”

Given that attitude, Red Elephants can expect a special week in practice that is, in part, a reward for the hard work they’ve already put in to reach this point in the state playoffs.

And that comes with a much different schedule, especially with school on break for the holiday week.

“We normally come in on Sundays (after a Friday game), but we’ll probably give them Sunday off, give them an extra day rest because this was a physical game,” Niblett said after Friday’s win over South Paulding. “But (since) we don’t have school (this week), we can get some extra meetings in on Monday. We’ll try to keep our (practice) schedule the same. We just may not practice as early in the morning as we (normally) do, but we’ll practice (Tuesday) morning and get them out by lunch so they can time with their families and get rest.

“I think if we use it wisely, we’ll be really rested and fresh Friday. Wednesday, we’ll probably come in and practice like we normally do, and then try to have a Red Kingdom lunch with the families of the players. Then Thursday, we’ll come in (and) practice early in the morning at 7 so our kids can go have Thanksgiving with their families. It’ll be a little different, but it’s a fun time.”

However, while Niblett and his staff want to make this week special, they have also repeatedly stated all season that this week, like any other that have preceded it, isn’t the be all and end all for the season, since there are still three more steps in front of the Red Elephants to their ultimate goal.

And while Niblett wants his players to embrace how special it is to be one of a handful of teams to which that goal is available, he also wants to remind them that there is still work to do, and it comes with a lot of responsibility.

“These kids understand what’s in front of them, and they’re smart,” Niblett said. “They know right from wrong and they know when they need to get rest. They know their bodies, and they know what they’ve got in front of them and the opportunity.

“We’ll make sure we educate them well on how they need to take care of their bodies and going to be early and getting rest. But what an awesome time for us.”

He’ll get no argument from the players, like senior defensive lineman Stacy Hopkins Jr., who echoed Cheeks’ earlier sentiments about of what it means to still have at least one more game to prepare for as the turkey and all the trimmings are served Thursday.

“It honestly means a lot to me because I’ve never been in this position before,” Hopkins said. “My family hasn’t been in this position before. We’ve been trying to do this for four straight years, but we couldn’t do it. We’re doing it now, and I’m proud of everybody on this team, plus the coaching staff.”

Class 6A quarterfinals

Friday's schedule

Gainesville vs. Houston County

Roswell at Thomas County Central

Woodward Academy at Langston Hughes

Marist at Rome

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