JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Johns Creek finished the regular season 9-1 and won their second straight region title this season, but Friday, the program was focused on making history.
The Gladiators defeated Alexander 59-34 to capture the first playoff victory in the program’s 10-year history.
“I know it might sound silly, but it means everything,” Johns Creek head coach Matt Helmerich said. “It means everything for these kids and their parents that have supported us from day one. It means everything to Mike Cloy who started this program 10 years ago and was here tonight. And a lot of our alumni were back tonight to watch this game, so it was pretty sweet to get the win.”
Johns Creek senior quarterback Ben Whitlock finished the game with over 350 passing yards and four touchdowns. His senior wide receivers had a big night as well, with Justin Campbell and Dalton Pearson each hauling in two touchdowns from Whitlock. Yong Min Lee neared 150 all-purpose yards.
The high-powered Johns Creek offense came out firing in the first half. After averaging 42.8 points per game during the regular season, the Gladiators showed Alexander how terrifying their offense can be for defenders.
The Gladiators opened the scoring with a 1-minute, 51-yard drive capped off with a 26-yard touchdown run by Will Watson.
The Gladiators found the end zone again on their next drive with Watson scoring from 1-yard out to push the lead to 13-0.
To cap off the first quarter, Johns Creek’s defense forced its third consecutive punt, and the offense scored its third consecutive touchdown. Whitlock connected with Dalton Pearson for a 9-yard touchdown, and the Gladiators took a 20-0 lead.
After an abysmal first quarter for Alexander, the Cougars showed some signs of life in the second, but not before Pearson returned a punt for his second touchdown of the night that put Johns Creek up 28-0.
Following the touchdown return by Pearson, the Cougars drove 76 yards for their first points of the night behind a 16-yard touchdown pass.
The Gladiators responded with another score, a 17-yard touchdown grab from Justin Campbell.
Alexander added points just before halftime on a 70-yard touchdown to put the score at 35-13 at the break.
“Our offense has so many weapons,” Helmerich said. “We’ve played really well at times this season, and tonight we were just clicking from the get-go. That makes a huge difference. I think it broke [Alexander’s] spirits a little bit. That’s a good football team. They beat some really good teams this year, and we knew we had our work cut out for us.”
The Gladiators kept their foot on the gas pedal in the third quarter. After the defense forced a punt, Whitlock hit Pearson in the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown that had the Johns Creek student section chanting, “Start the busses!”
Later in the quarter, Caleb Adegboyego converted a 30-yard field goal to put Johns Creek up 45-13. On the ensuing kickoff, the Gladiators forced a fumble that set the offense up at the Cougars’ 28-yard line. It took the offense only one play to cash in when Whitlock and Campbell connected for a 28-yard touchdown.
Johns Creek led 52-13, but that wouldn’t be the last score of the night for either team.
Tank Pritchett added a 2-yard touchdown run for Johns Creek early in the fourth quarter, and the Cougars scored three touchdowns late in the game as the clock ran out.
“We played well,” Helmerich said. “We gave up some cheap touchdowns there in the fourth quarter, but all in all it was a great performance.”
For Johns Creek, the win proves the relatively young program has taken the next step. Their next test comes against a program with a rich history of playoff success.
Johns Creek will host Valdosta in the second round. The Valdosta program began in 1913 and has compiled over 900 wins, making Valdosta the “winningest” high school football program in the nation.
“Valdosta is the winningest program in the United States in high school football history,” Helmerich said. “I don’t think anything needs to be said about that. Our kids know there’s a big challenge coming up.”