Experience vs. change has been a popular theme this election year.
Based on Friday night’s result at West Forsyth, you can score one for experience, at least in Region 7-AAA.
In a battle of unbeaten teams, junior quarterback Blake Sims ran for three touchdowns and threw for one more, lifting No. 8 Gainesville out of an early 3-0 hole and on to a 35-16 win over the Wolverines.
Down 21-3 at halftime, the Wolverines (5-1 overall, 1-1 Region 7B-AAA) pulled to within 12 twice in the second half, but Gainesville (6-0, 2-0) responded both times to keep the game just out of reach.
“Our defense made them work for everything they had to get. Our offense answered every time they scored, and when you’re doing that, you can win ball games,” Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller said.
West’s first touchdown of the night came with 5:46 left in the third quarter, after Gainesville fumbled a punt recovery at its own 21-yard line.
Three plays later, the Wolverines were in the end zone, on a 1-yard scoring run from Ben Emert (84 yards rushing, two touchdowns) to make it 21-9. David Rooney’s extra point was blocked, leaving the margin at 12.
The Elephants came right back from there, with Sims (293 total yards) completing a 65-yard touchdown pass to Teryan Rucker on the second play of the ensuing drive to boost the lead to 28-9.
West would score off another Gainesville miscue in the fourth quarter, but the Elephants again came right back with the rebuttal.
Rucker fumbled on the opening play of a drive in the final seconds of the third, with West’s Chris Rubessa recovering the ball down at the Gainesville 13.
West needed six plays to cover the short distance and score, including a keeper by Lance Baker on fourth and short just around the 3. Emert scored his second touchdown on a 3-yard run with 11:13 to play, making it 28-16.
Gainesville killed any chance of a comeback with a seven-play, 80-yard drive from there. Devon Pierce broke a big 45-yard run on the series, and Sims leaped toward the end zone on a seven-yard run to give the Elephants a 19-point lead with 9:13 to play.
West coach Frank Hepler was impressed with Gainesville’s ability to consistently respond and keep the momentum from switching too far in the Wolverines’ direction.
“You know, we’d get a turnover and then they’d stop us, then we’d go down and drive and score, and then they’d come back and score,” Hepler said.
Meanwhile, Miller — formerly a head coach at North Forsyth — said he was “amazed” at West’s gritty play, considering the Wolverines were playing junior varsity teams just last year.
“They are a very good football team,” Gainesville’s coach said. “I can’t believe that’s a second year program. They played toe-to-toe with us. We big played ‘em a couple times. You know, my hat goes off to coach Hepler and his coaching staff. ... I tell you what, I’m just glad to get out of here with a win.”
Gainesville lost four fumbles on the night, something Miller said will cost his team down the road if it doesn’t stop.
Hepler seemed upbeat after West’s first varsity loss, showing pride in his team’s effort on both sides of the ball.
“We’re a young program, and I think sometimes you can learn more from a loss than you can from a win, and definitely tonight was a learning situation. Gainesville’s a great team, and they’re well-coached and our kids played hard. ... [In the postgame huddle] I said number one, they had no fear in their eyes, and number two, they left the game on the field. Everybody who got in tonight did the best they could do.”
In a subregion schedule that only lasts five games, one loss can be a big deal, but Hepler refused to focus on the game’s postseason implications.
“We’re just trying to get better, week in and week out right now. Now two, three, four years down the road, now we’ll start stressing those wins and the big region things and that type of stuff,” he said.
West drew first blood in the game, with the Wolverine defense forcing two consecutive three-and-outs to start the game and the offense doing well enough to set up a 24-yard Rooney field goal on its first series.
Gainesville finally broke on top with 22 seconds left in the first, capping off an 86-yard drive with a 3-yard scoring run from Rucker.
T.J. Jones then picked off a pass attempt from Baker (145 passing yards) near the West 25, returning it to the 10. Three plays later, Sims ran four yards for a score, making it 14-3 early in the second quarter.
“That was huge. That was a two-score swing right there,” Miller said of the touchdown-interception-touchdown sequence.
Sims took off for an 85-yard scoring run later in the second to boost Gainesville to the 18-point edge at intermission.
West has two weeks before the next game, a home date with Johnson on Oct. 17.