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Gators galvanized; Mercer bound for title showdown

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Nemesis Brentwood last step to The Gold

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    Cash Gator middle linebacker Will Harper (60) leads the defensive charge last Friday against Southwest Georgia Academy in the semifinal victory earning Gatewood a trip to the state championship. CONTRIBUTED/Arella
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    Senior Charlie Rutherford (3) hauls in a 36-yard touchdown pass to get the scoring started for Gatewood in a decisive 35-7 win over Southwest Georgia Academy. CONTRIBUTED/Arella Cash
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    Sinclair Gatewood freshman Evan Bennett (7) scampers into the end zone on a 33-yard touchdown run. CONTRIBUTED/Dawn

The two-time defending state champion Gatewood Gators (11-1) deployed a physically dominating smash mouth defense and an opportunistic offense in defeating Southwest Georgia Academy 35-7 in the GISA state AA semifinals last Friday to punch their ticket to Mercer University and the state championship game.

“I am so proud of our team. The challenge went out to match the physicality of Southwest Georgia, and our team did just that,” said Gator head coach Jeff Ratliff. “We were extremely physical and played at a high level. Because of that level of play, we have earned the right to play for the state title.”

In hindsight, the defensive performance against what Ratliff called one of the most physical offenses in Gatewood’s league may have been the best defensive performance of the season.

“We were so physical and relentless. Through our hustle and determination, we were able to get a lot of tacklers to the ball, and we punished their backs when we got there,” Ratliff said. “The defense forced multiple turnovers and limited big plays from their offense throughout the night.”

It was the relentless pursuit of the defense through a collective team defensive effort, led in part by senior Will Harper that ultimately made the difference.

“We felt really good,” said Harper. “Our defense held a really good running team to almost nothing. We played hard and with desire and heart. We’re not the biggest but we play harder than anybody.

“We came out popping. We were ready to go. We knew it was going to be a tough night but we stopped them and we hit them all night.”

It took Gatewood nearly the entire first quarter to get on the scoreboard but with 55 seconds left in the first frame, senior quarterback Luke Haley found senior Charlie Rutherford open down the right sideline for a 36-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 edge.

A key turning point in the game came with 7:22 in the second quarter. Southwest was buried at their 15-yard line after a muffed kickoff following the Gator score. They drove to the 44-yard line and looked to be on track. But two straight penalties and a short 5-yard gain brought up fourth down and Southwest punted.

Haley went back to receive and drifted under the punt at the Gatewood 46-yard line. Moving to his left, a seam developed between four Southwest players and Haley split all four, reached the left sideline and tip-toed down the line to score on a 54-yard return and suddenly, Gatewood led 14-0.

Nearly two minutes later, freshman Evan Bennett got loose and scampered 33 yards off the left side of the offensive line, broke two tackles and was gone for the touchdown and a 21-0 Gator advantage with 5:06 before intermission.

“Offensively, I thought we did a good job of mixing in the run with the pass. That mixture kept them off balance,” said Ratliff. “Our offensive line play was great, and our skill players executed our offense. We were able to move the ball and put plenty of points on the board. Overall, it was a solid effort from our offense.”

In the second half, Haley found senior Jayson Burner for a 32-yard touchdown pass and senior Bryce Johnson ran 44 yards for the final score after the defense recovered a fumble to put the game out of reach at 35-0 with 7:41 left to play.

“The win was the result of an incredible team effort. Southwest Georgia was a very good football team. Their brand of football is old fashion; four yards and a cloud of dust,” Ratliff explained. “They believe in being physical with your opponent and beat them into submission. I think we all know now we can play that brand of football too. What a great win for our team.”

Now it’s on to mercer in a rematch of the region title game won by Gatewood 22-18 just a few weeks ago.

“The two best teams are in the finals,” Ratliff said. “Round one was for the region championship. CHECK. Round two is for the state championship. Get ready for an incredible football game. It will be a classic.”

More so for the program is Gatewood’s attempt to win three state titles in a row but the game Friday is all about the 2020 Gators and their year of dominance.

“This is the 2020 team and that is what this is all about,” Ratliff said. “They have an opportunity to go to the state championship and I can’t be more proud for them. WE sometimes get painted into a corner for what we do because that is our base. We do it all the time but we do have other parts of our game.

“The last couple of years we have had some good teams and we had some really good nucleus’. The difference was we didn’t have to replace many guys but this year we did. They have earned the right to go to Macon. Championships are not given away.

“They have a chance now and all we need is the opportunity. This is the game for all the marbles.”