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High school football: No. 5 Gainesville makes easy work of Lanier
Gainesville's Naim Cheeks (7) runs with Lanier defenders holding on during the Sept. 30, 2022 in Sugar Hill. - photo by Bill Murphy

After a bye week, Gainesville was looking to shake off any potential rust from its midseason break in Friday’s Region 8-6A game against Lanier.

And make no mistake, there was plenty of rust to scrape off, including a pair of turnovers and 13 penalties worth 121 yards.

However, the Red Elephants found plenty of good in all phases of the game to offset those issues to roll to a 42-14 win at Lanier Community Stadium in Sugar Hill.

Offensively, Gainesville (6-0, 2-0 in region) piled up 539 yards of total offense – 281 on the ground and 258 in the air – with quarterback Baxter Wright and running back Naim Cheeks being the biggest weapons.

Wright finished the night 17 of 20 for 246 yards with a touchdown passing and ran for 67 yards and three scores, while Cheeks ran for 175 yards and two scores and caught three passes for 81 yards, 78 of which came on a TD reception from Wright.

Meanwhile, the Gainesville defense held Lanier (2-4, 1-1) to 182 yards, including just 89 on the ground.

“(The win) is a blessing, but at the same time, we didn’t play very well (Friday) night,” Gainesville coach Josh Niblett said. “We played good enough to win the game, but we made some mistakes. You could tell we probably had a week or two off, and that’s my fault. As a head coach, the buck stops with me. I’ve got to do a better job of getting us prepared because we’re going into another open week.

“(Friday) night, we did some good things, but we had too many penalties. We let too many (Lanier) drives stay alive. We had too many penalties to where we put ourselves behind the sticks offensively. … We were able to overcome a few of those things (Friday) night, but we’ve got to lock in on those things and focus on what we’ve got to do to get better.”

Gainesville outgained Lanier 238-75 in the first half, but the game remained close by intermission thanks to a couple of fumbles and some ill-timed penalties by the Red Elephants.

The first of those turnovers came on their first possession of the game, with Ryan Jean scooping up a fumble at the Lanier 43.

Then aided by a pair of penalties that extended the ensuing drive, the Longhorns marched 44 yards in eight plays to take the ball to the Gainesville 13.

Then on fourth and 4, Preston Ratliff found Tayo Ashadele on a swing pass out of the backfield for a 13-yard touchdown that gave Lanier a 6-0 lead after a blocked PAT with 4:09 left in the first quarter.

Gainesville fumbled again on its next possession with Jean recovering again for Lanier, but the defense came up with a three-and-out to keep the Longhorns from adding on.

The Red Elephants then came up with a quick answer after the ensuing punt, moving 54 yards in five plays, with Wright faking a handoff and sprinting 27 yards for the score on the keeper to vault Gainesville into a 7-6 lead with 16.3 seconds left in the opening frame.

Another quick three-and-out gave Gainesville the ball back in the opening minute of the second quarter, and the Red Elephants responded with a nine-play, 73-yard march, balancing a punishing running game with some well-executed passes.

Then, after Wright got a reprieve when Logan Laughlin couldn’t hold on to a leaping interception attempt when he hit the turf, Cheeks capitalized on the respite by busting through the Lanier defense for a 22-yard scoring run to extend the Gainesville lead to 14-6, an advantage the Red Elephants would take into the break.

However, Gainesville’s focus took a major upswing early in the second half, starting with the second snap of the third quarter.

Cheeks found a hole up the middle and bolted through it before outracing the Lanier secondary for a 67-yard touchdown to give the Red Elephants a little breathing room at 21-6 just 53 seconds after the second-half kickoff.

After a quick three-and-out by the defense, Darius Cannon broke loose after receiving the ensuing punt at his own 43-yard line and returning it 44 yards to the Lanier 12.

Wright ran for 11 yards on the next snap, and then called his number again on a second-straight keeper to score from a yard out to push the Red Elephants’ lead to 28-6 with just 2:46 elapsed in the third quarter.

Lanier showed some fight on its next possession by marching 80 yards over nine plays, with Kaden Beard doing most of the heavy lifting, carrying the ball five times on the drive before finishing it off with a dive into the end zone from a yard out. Beard finished the night with a team-high 76 yard on 25 carries.

Ratliff followed with a two-point conversion run, and the Longhorns were back in the game at 28-14 with 5:01 left in the third quarter.

“I’m proud of our kids,” first-year Lanier coach Tyler Maloof said. “For four quarters, I don’t think there was any give up. The moment wasn’t too big for them. It doesn’t matter what the score was, I’m still proud of them.”

But once again, Gainesville had a quick answer, needing just five plays and 2:33 to go 53 yards, with Wright taking a quarterback keeper 32 yards for a TD that restore the Red Elephants’ three-score lead at 35-14 with 2:29 left in the period.

Wright would put a bow on his, and Cheeks’, big night in the fourth quarter by finding his running back about 25 yards down field on third and 7 from the 22, with the senior then sprinting the remaining yardage for a 78-yard score that made the score 42-14 with 5:57 to play.

Up next, Gainesville gets its final bye week before playing Habersham Central on Oct. 14 at City Park Stadium. 

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