Gainesville may have gotten off to a slow start in first-year head coach Heath Webb’s inaugural season with the program, but the Red Elephants aren’t out of the playoff hunt quite yet.
Gainesville struggled to get anything going early on against Winder-Barrow — which Webb coached for from 2014 to 2017 — but 20 fourth-quarter points were enough to boost the Red Elephants (1-7, 1-2) over the visiting Bulldoggs (2-6, 0-3) 20-7 in the team’s first win of the season.
“We finally finished a ball game,” Webb said following the contest. “I think that’s the biggest thing is finishing a ball game. Because we were in a couple earlier that we didn’t finish, and to finally get one and finish a game...That’s good stuff.”
Caught up in making sure his team saw the victory through to the end, Webb said he didn’t even think about the opponent his first win with the Red Elephants came against his former team until it was all over.
“I love those kids at Winder,” Webb said. “They’re great kids. They play hard and they work hard. It’s bittersweet, because I want to see them be successful, but at the same time, we had to pull one out. And I’m proud of my guys for it.”
Gainesville was led offensively by quarterback Gionni Williams, who completed 8 of 12 passes for 67 yards and a touchdown, and rushed 20 times for 87 yards and another score, while running back Quintavious Hayes added 144 yards on 18 rushing attempts. The Gainesville defense came through with a trio of second-half turnovers — an interception and two fumble recoveries.
And while they did eventually pull out the result they were looking for, it took awhile for the Red Elephants to get going offensively. The first half was a defensive slugfest, with neither team managing to get on the scoreboard.
Gainesville played a near perfect half defensively, forcing three and outs on all four of Winder-Barrow’s possessions and holding the Bulldoggs to 15 total yards. Offensively, the Red Elephants moved the ball well enough, but penalties halted a couple of promising drives, setting the team back each time it appeared to be gaining some momentum.
“We ran 42 plays in the first half and came away with no points,” Webb said. “That’s crazy. And it was because of penalties.”
The third quarter was much the same, as Gainesville once again moved the ball effectively but could not get the ball all the way into the end zone.
The fourth quarter was a completely different story.
After Gainesville came up just short of a first down on fourth and 3 with 10 minutes left to play in the game, Winder-Barrow quarterback Jhaydon Sullivan attempted to go deep, but his pass was intercepted by Rassie Littlejohn who brought the ball all the way back to the Bulldogg 45 yard line.
It was exactly the type of momentum-swinging play Webb had been looking for all game.
“That’s what we said at halftime, somebody make a play,” he said. “And I’m just happy to see somebody make a play.”
It only took five plays for Williams to punch in a touchdown from 5 yards out to put Gainesville up 7-0 in the fourth quarter. On the very next play, following the kickoff, AJ Tolliver sacked Sullivan, who could not hang onto the ball. Tolliver picked up the fumble and ran it 25 yards back for another score. Gainesville missed the extra point, but the Red Elephants were still on top 13-0. After going more than 37 minutes of game time without getting into the end zone, Gainesville scored two touchdowns in less than 30 seconds.
The sudden scoring outburst was apparently contagious, as Winder-Barrow came out on its next possession and drove 56 yards down the field and scored to draw within a touchdown, trailing 13-7 with 6:59 left in the game.
But Webb’s squad did not let off the gas, as it only took three plays — including a 52-yard rush from Hayes and a 25-yard touchdown strike from Williams — to push the lead back to 20-7.
“Up by 13, they cut the lead real quick,” Webb said. “And then for us to not even flinch and come back and score, it was great.”
Gainesville’s defense found its footing once again after giving up the score, and the Red Elephants managed to hold the 20-7 lead all the way through the end of the contest.
With the victory, Gainesville keeps their playoff hopes alive. If Gainesville can string together two more wins to finish off the season, the team would likely sneak in as the fourth place team in Region 8-6A.
But for Webb and his team — victorious for the first time this year — thoughts of next week and beyond will have to wait until tomorrow.
“Hopefully that gives us a little bit of confidence to know that we can play a complete game and win one late,” Webb said. “I think we’ll enjoy this one tonight. We’ll worry about playoffs and that stuff tomorrow, but for now, I’m just happy for those guys.”