The crowd had made its way to the exit, yet Gainesville running back Teryan Rucker was still on the field at City Park Stadium, basking in his team’s 32-19 win over Cairo in the Class AAA quarterfinals.
Rucker, who rushed for 161 yards and a touchdown, stood on the field and soaked it all in. His team, the top-ranked Red Elephants (13-0) are now just two wins from a state championship.
"The whole week we were motivated because to be the best you have to beat the best," the senior said. "In my eyes they were the best because they won it all last year.
"For us to win, that’s special for me," he added. "Last year when we lost it was a long ride home, and I know it’s gonna be a long ride home for them."
While Gainesville sent the defending state champions packing, standing in its way now is last year’s runner-up and Region 7-AAA foe Flowery Branch, which beat Carver-Columbus 35-33 on Friday.
"What a feeling to reach the final four and play like we did," said Gainesville coach Bruce Miller, whose program is making its first semifinal appearance since 2002.
When the announcement came over the loud speaker that Gainesville would play host to the Falcons, the crowd erupted, as did Rucker.
"We played them for a region championship this year and last year, and I want to go 3-0 when it comes to playing them with a lot on the line," Rucker said. "It’s gonna be a fight."
So too, was Friday’s game with Cairo (9-4).
After building a 13-0 lead thanks to Rucker’s 82-yard run and an 80-yard punt return for a touchdown by Blake Sims, the Syrupmakers scored 16 unanswered points to take the lead and the momentum.
Or so they thought.
A Tai-ler Jones 53-yard return on the ensuing kickoff set up Gainesville with good field position, and Sims capped a six-play drive with a 5-yard touchdown run to give Gainesville a 20-16 lead.
"They’re a good football team," Cairo coach Tom Fallow said. "We got back into it, that’s for sure. But I think they had us more than we had them."
The Syrupmakers regained the lead on a 34-yard field goal from Trevor Moncrief, but as they have done all year, the Red Elephants responded.
After Tyson Smith finished a 12-play drive with a 6-yard touchdown, senior cornerback Justin Owens came up with the play of the night, intercepting a pass on Cairo’s ensuing possession to give the highly-potent Gainesville offense one more chance to score before halftime.
"They tried to run that play all night," Owens said. "I knew when I got it that it could change the game because our offense is so good."
The offense didn’t disappoint, and with just 41.7 seconds left before the half, Sims found a wide-open Jones for a 51-yard touchdown to give Gainesville a 32-19 lead.
"It was just one of those nights when we had a complete team effort," Miller said. "The offense, special teams and defense all played outstanding."
The defense was tested early by Cairo running back Laquinton Williams, who rushed for 120 yards and scored two touchdowns in the first half. But after some adjustments at halftime, Gainesville held the junior tailback to just 19 yards in the second half.
"Nobody thought we’d be here or thought we’d be in this game," Fallow said. "I give credit to my players for the fight, but you got to give credit to Gainesville for the win."
The win improves Gainesville’s home winning streak to 16 games, but more importantly it proved to the rest of the state that football in this area is legit.
"It’s a shame that two North Georgia teams are playing in the final four," Rucker said sarcastically. "This sent a statement to Georgia that we play just as well as the southern teams do."
Despite what Rucker says, his coach thinks that Gainesville still is not considered one of the best teams in the state.
"I think there’s gonna be doubters until we get to a state championship," Miller said. "And we have a big obstacle in the way."