Whether they were on the winning or the losing side, the Gatewood Gators’ first two games were marked by lopsided scores.
Last week, they finally had a close game on their hands.
The Gators improved to 2-1 on the season last Friday in their first road game of the year, traveling to Sandersville to face rival Brentwood Academy. The Gators were victorious and returned to Eatonton with a 29-12 win over the Eagles.
Despite now having a 1-3 record, the Eagles were no pushover and battled the Gators for a majority of the game, keeping the score close at a mere 7-0 at halftime. The Brentwood faithful did not make things any easier as the tough environment seemed to have some effect on the Gators.
“I told the guys before the game that this was a tough place to play,” Gatewood head coach Jeff Ratliff said. “I was going to see how mentally tough they were and see if they could play four quarters and get a win. I knew Brentwood had a good football team and I thought we played hard. We did what we do in the second half and I thought the defense played great and the offense got things rolling.”
Gatewood made it through the night thanks to a strong night of rushing, largely on to the legs of sophomore quarterback Luke Haley and the strength of fullback Yale Stapp. The concussion symptoms that gave Haley a premature exit from the season opener with John Milledge Academy seemed to be a thing of the past as he picked up two rushing touchdowns on the night.
After losing the ball on the opening kickoff, Gatewood held Brentwood to a three-and-out to set up the first and only touchdown drive of the first half. Solid runs from Stapp and Walt Jarrett and a Brentwood facemask penalty set up Haley’s touchdown run to give Gatewood the lead.
Although the Gator offense was sluggish in the first half, Haley remained poised and trusted his offense throughout the rest of the game.
“We started off slow,” Haley said. “But then, we got in the groove. We figured out what defense they were running and just kept running the option. Our offensive line did a good job. We didn’t block at first but we blocked in the end and that’s all that matters.”
The Eagles had plenty of chances to score during the first half, including converting on fourth down with a pass to the Gator 10-yard line toward the end of the second quarter. However, the Gator defense made a goal line stand to keep their one-touchdown lead going into halftime.
The Eagles scored in the opening minutes of the third quarter, but missed the PAT to keep the Gators ahead by 1. Gatewood then lost a fumble on the 45-yard line but, fortunately for the Gators, Connor Olson immediately grabbed an interception the very next play to bring Haley and the Gatewood offense back out, and the Gators took control from there with Haley earning his second touchdown on a long keeper from the Brentwood 40.
Haley didn’t do it alone, however, as Stapp came alive in the final quarter to add two scores of his own. He punched in touchdown No. 3 after more hard runs from Haley before icing the game with a short run from the 1-yard line as well as a 2-point conversion.
Like Haley, Stapp praised his offensive line for their role in the Gators’ better second half.
“We came together in the second half and made it work,” Stapp said. “I felt great tonight but it was all on my linemen. They gave me a huge hole on both touchdowns tonight.”
With another solid victory under their belts, the Gators’ season opener continues to fade in the rear-view mirror as a young Gatewood team improves week by week to maintain the dominant status they’ve held in recent years.
A unique matchup awaits the Gators next as two-time GICAA champion Community Christian visits the Swamp this Friday.
“I’m excited about playing Community Christian,” Ratliff said. “I feel this will be a great game for us to match up against fast athletes at every skill position. We’ll have to find a way to win at the line of scrimmage and control the game. We have a great opportunity to get better.”
A solid win over a rival has helped Gatewood back on its feet. Now, it must conquer its next challenge in the quest to get back to Mercer University.