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High school football: Fourth-ranked Gainesville optimistic about taking show on the road for 6A state semifinals
Gainesville's Jeremiah Telander (2) hits the quarterback against Sprayberry in the first round of the Class 6A state playoffs Nov. 11 at City Park Stadium. Photo by Lee Heard For The Times

A popular song from the 1950s declared that there’s no place like home for the holidays.

It’s a foregone conclusion that any high school football program would agree to a variation on that theme.

There’s no place like home for the state playoffs, something Gainesville won’t dispute after winning its first three games in the 2022 postseason at City Park Stadium.

However, the No. 4 Red Elephants (13-0) will be hitting the road for the first time in almost a month and a half when they take on third-ranked Roswell (12-1) in a Class 6A state semifinal Friday.

Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on Peachtree TV 

That trip will be a bit different than they first thought after the game was moved to Walter H. Cantrell Stadium at McEachern High in Powder Springs, due to Roswell’s stadium not being able to hold 6,000 fans, a requirement for the state semifinals by the Georgia High School Association. 

Gainesville coach Josh Niblett acknowledges that playing away from home for the first time since a 34-7 win at Shiloh on Oct. 21 is a change from the friendlier confines of Bobby Gruhn Field.

However, Niblett says that at this point, it doesn’t matter to him or his staff and players where they play.

“Heck, I mean, we’re going to the semifinals,” Niblett said. “It doesn’t matter if we play in a parking lot. We’ve just got to play. We’re going to play. It doesn’t matter if we play it here or there. City Park is an awesome place to play. Yeah, we would love to have been here, but we’re not here.

“So our focus and our mindset is … we’ve won some big games on the road this year. I mean, we went to (No. 7) Marist to start the year off. We went to Shiloh and won a big (Region 8-6A) game there. So our kids have been on the road before, and our kids are those kids who they don’t care where they play. It’s the way the practice, the way they prepare. So we’re not going to let the circumstance be greater than the cause. We’ll have our kids ready to go and we’ll be ready to play.”

Gainesville, which is one of only 10 undefeated teams left among the GHSA’s eight different classifications, seems to bear out Niblett’s assertion.

While the Red Elephants have played three more games in Gainesville, their average margin of victory in those games is only about a point higher than that of their road wins.

In addition, Gainesville has shown the ability to win either on the natural grass of City Park Stadium or artificial turf, like the surface of Cantrell Stadium, with all five of its road wins having been played on a synthetic surface.

Still, with the Red Elephants’ 49-35 win over 10th-ranked Houston County in last Friday’s quarterfinals being the final game of the season at City Park Stadium — they’ll play at Georgia State University’s Center Parc Stadium if they make the finals — several of the players were feeling a bit nostalgic.

“It’s the most beautiful place in the world,” junior quarterback Baxter Wright, who finished Friday’s game 14 of 18 for 283 yards and three TDs and ran for 69 more yards and a score, said of the stadium. “We love it, and we’re so blessed to play here every Friday that we can. It does mean a lot that we could finish strong here.”

That is particularly true that Friday’s win assures that Gainesville will finish a season undefeated at home for the first time since 2015.

In fact, for a handful of Red Elephant players who transferred into the program last offseason, last Friday’s win means they are undefeated for their careers at City Park Stadium.

That includes senior linebacker Jeremiah Telander, though he points out that his total includes at least one other game he played there while he played at North Hall before coming to Gainesville.

“Actually, this is my first year at … Gainesville, but my first high school game ever, I played at City Park,” said the Tennessee signee, recalling a preseason scrimmage against Gainesville from his freshman season. “We actually beat them. So to go undefeated at City Park and be with my team, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Neither would fellow seniors like Naim Cheeks, who has played his entire career at Gainesville, and for whom finishing a season unbeaten at home is particularly special.

“It means everything to me,” said Cheeks, who ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns and caught three passes for 101 yards and another score in Friday’s win. “It’s all I ever wanted to do. And I know the city (of Gainesville) wanted this, so I tried my best, and our team tried (its) best to give it to them, and we got it.”

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