GAINESVILLE — The party may still be going in Rabbittown. After all, it has been more than two years in the making.
There’s plenty to celebrate in that part of the county after the East Hall High football team’s 34-28 thriller over West Hall on Friday, the Vikings’ first victory since Sept. 19, 2008.
East Hall freshman Austin Mahaffey scored on a 10-yard run with 2:32 left, two plays after junior teammate Chaz Cheeks recovered a West Hall fumble deep in Spartans’ territory.
East Hall (1-8, 1-4 Region 7B-AAA) used big-play ability to overcome two early fumbles that led to 14 points for the Spartans. Sophomore Jamond Witt had an 80-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and added a 75-yard run, and classmate Carlos Negron had a 74-yard touchdown dash. Both came in the second half. East Hall rushed for 238 yards overall.
"Every play the coaches call, you want to get in the end zone for a touchdown," said Negron, who led East Hall with 82 yards rushing. "I think we all had the chance to show we could do this. We’re doing everything we can to keep this going."
The Spartans (0-9, 0-4) had a chance to tie the game on their final drive. West Hall got as deep as the Vikings’ 20 before turning the ball over on downs.
"The last three seasons, our kids have always been fighting. They kept coming every day and never gave up," East Hall coach Bryan Gray said. "They played their hearts out tonight. Our offensive line blocked as well as they have all year. This validates all the things we’ve been doing and now they’re seeing rewards."
West Hall junior quarterback Shunquez Stephens threw for 256 yards and four touchdowns but was hampered by an injured right ankle. It didn’t help that the Vikings’ defensive line harassed him throughout, led by Cheeks and fellow junior Sterling Bailey.
"We knew we had to get some stops on Shunquez, and then they gave us the football," Cheeks said. "It was our challenge, and we stood up to it. This is a great feeling and something we can keep going for next year."
The scoring started early as well with West Hall’s William Stroup 13-yard touchdown catch from Stephens after the Vikings fumbled the opening kickoff on their 15. Witt answered with his long kickoff return before the Spartans recovered another East Hall fumble. Stephens capitalized with a 35-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Brandon Fuqua just before the end of the period.
After another long return by Witt and a personal foul penalty put the Vikings on the Spartans’ 27, freshman quarterback Zach Groover hit senior Desmond Gardner — moved to receiver from quarterback — for a 30-yard score on fourth down.
Back came Stephens and the Spartans on the ensuing drive. Dylan Bartlett caught a 12-yard scoring pass for West Hall. The lead lasted one play before Negron’s 74-yard run.
Witt’s long touchdown run opened the fourth quarter before a fourth-down, 22-yard touchdown pass from Stephens to Bartlett tied the game with 5:48.
"We had some missed opportunities and turned the ball over late," West Hall coach Mike Newton said. "We gave ourselves a chance at the end, and that’s all I can ask of our kids. East Hall played a hard game and stopped us when they had to."