EATONTON — One game stands between the Gatewood Gators and their shot at being named back-to-back GISA AA state champions.
The Gators (11-2), under seventh-year head coach Jeff Ratliff, earned their school’s third-ever state title a year ago in blowout fashion when they defeated Terrell Academy 51-17. The setting remains the same as tonight they will once again line up inside Mercer University’s Five Star Stadium, the site of all three GISA championship football games. The opponent though, will be different. This time Gatewood will square off against the Briarwood Buccaneers of Warrenton (10-3) who battled their way into this prime position having entered the postseason as a No. 3 seed. The two finalists have not played one another since the 2013 season. This marks Gatewood football’s third state championship berth in four seasons while Briarwood is contending for its first title since 2016 when the Bucs fell to Flint River. The Warrenton private school located near the Warren-McDuffie County line is trying to obtain its first championship since winning it all in 1989.
Speaking from experience, Gatewood’s Coach Ratliff will be the first to tell you that the road to a successful Friday night begins during the practice week. By that measure, he says his Gators are off to a strong start.
“We’ve had a good week,” Ratliff told The Union-Recorder Thursday. “The kids have been excited and upbeat. We’re prepping for a good Briarwood team, and we’ll make sure that we’re ready for them. We’ve been focused on Briarwood and nothing else. We’ve seen what they’ve done to their last couple of opponents. I think we’re ready, we’ve just got to go out and execute.”
Tonight’s AA championship matchup features a pair of teams on near-equal footing when it comes to points surrendered defensively this season. Gatewood has allowed opponents a cumulative 170 while Briarwood stands at 186. The Gators hold a huge edge in terms of offense though as they’ve put up 520 (40 points per game) where Briarwood has scored 377 (29 per game). Both teams feature outstanding run games that only throw the football on occasion. For Briarwood, their offensive success stems from sophomore quarterback Dax Reese and junior RB Lucas Freitas who each have over 1,000 yards rushing.
“Coach Fleming (Bo, Briarwood head coach) will have them motivated and ready to play,” Ratliff said. “They have obviously come through the bracket as a 3-seed. We did that a few years ago and I remember every one of those games were hard-fought. I daresay we were the underdog in every one of those games. He’s probably embraced that role and he’s done an unbelievable job of getting his kids ready to play.”
The Bucs are the last team standing in Class AA’s strongest region that sent three teams to the Final Four. Briarwood beat St. Andrew’s School 20-3 and then Edmund Burke 20-14 to claim their its spot in the championship.
Not to be outdone, Gatewood ran roughshod over its region and its first playoff game against Memorial Day 60-12 before defeating Brentwood 35-20 in Sandersville to advance to their second-straight final. After some tweaking early this season, Ratliff’s Gators have basically been firing on all cylinders since late September. They’ve given up more than 21 points only once this season and the triple-option battery of quarterback Luke Haley, John Decker and Walt Jarrett is really clicking. Does Gatewood’s state championship experience from a year ago play a factor entering tonight’s matchup? Ratliff certainly believes so.
“For our seniors, which is our most important group, I think it’s huge,” he said. “They’ve been there twice now. A good many of them were starters for us last year. For them to be able to lead our team is huge — knowing the moment, knowing the situation and being in the game. On the other side of that, it’s a new year and this is a team that’s achieved. They’re all excited. If those younger guys didn’t feel like they were a part of it last year they’re certainly a part of it this year because they have earned their way back.”
Kickoff between the Bucs and Gators is set for 5 p.m. at Mercer. The game will be the second in a championship triple-header.