Gainesville’s faced athletic and highly-touted quarterbacks in the postseason many times before.
Seventeen years ago, the Red Elephants found a way to come out on top 27-20 in the second round at City Park Stadium against Westlake, which was led by junior quarterback Cam Newton, who was then a commit to Florida, before going on to win a national title at Auburn in 2010.
Still to this day, it’s a game Gainesville faithful talk about fondly.
On Friday, the No. 4 Red Elephants (12-0) will be in that position once against a hot prospect signal-caller for Houston County (10-2) in the Class 6A state quarterfinals at City Park Stadium.
Houston County sophomore Antwann Hill Jr, has thrown for 3,246 yards and 36 touchdowns to only three interceptions in 2022, and already has scholarship offers from Georgia, Tennessee and Florida, among many others.
“He’s a big joker,” Gainesville coach Josh Niblett said. “He’s got an arm and can make all the throws, and he can run it, too.”
At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Hill is a top-100 national prospect for the Class of 2025 and confident at the helm of a fast-paced Bears offense, which includes a pair of junior receivers, Kale Woodburn and Ricky Johnson, who have each accounted for more than 800 yards.
In addition to the prolific passing attack, Houston County has a 1,600-yard junior running back in Ryan Taleb.
“They’re a really good football team,” Niblett said. “It’s the best team we’ve faced all season. Offensively, they try to spread you out and go fast-tempo. They try to get you in a predicament (with coverages), so you have to do a good job on first down.”
Despite the challenge, Gainesville has to feel good about its chances behind two convincing home wins to open the playoffs, earning a spot in the state quarterfinals for the first time since 2014.
The Red Elephants are flourishing behind junior quarterback Baxter Wright, who stands at 2,659 passing yards and 31 touchdowns through the air this season.
In Round 2 against South Paulding, a 42-21 victory, Wright threw a pair of touchdowns each to Tre Reece and Darius Cannon and finished the game with 258 yards through the air.
However, the biggest weapon in the postseason for the Red Elephants has been dynamic senior running back Naim Cheeks, who is close to 500 yards in the first two games of the playoffs, and stands at 1,511 yards in 2022.
Houston County’s first two wins in the postaseason haven’t been nearly as convincing, upsetting Brunswick 29-28 in the first round, then rallying to beat North Atlanta 41-31 in Round 2.
No matter the opposition, Gainesville’s first-year coach is resolute in his players and their ability to get the job done as it looks to make the state semifinals for the first since 2013.
“Now, we have to go out there, play well, play fast and physical and leave nothing on the table,” Niblett said.