NAPLES, Fla. — The Gwinnett Football League sixth-graders’ quest for a national championship fell just short.
The local team fell 34-12 to Dade County (Fla.) in Tuesday afternoon’s Football University National Championship final in Naples, Fla., ending an exceptional playoff run that saw the squad become GFL’s first to advance out of the regional stage at the sixth- or seventh-grade level. It was attempting to win GFL’s first FBU national title since the eighth-graders won back-to-back crowns in 2012 and 2013.
After an impressive opening drive to go up 6-0, GFL surrendered 28 straight points to the Florida power before closing within 28-12 in the fourth quarter. A 98-yard, pick-six from Dade with 18 seconds left sealed the victory in the final of the 64-team, bracket-style tournament that determines the best middle school football teams in the country.
Caleb Downs, who plays for Mill Creek, led GFL with 21 rushes for 105 yards and both of his team’s touchdowns. He also had two catches for 20 yards from Peachtree Ridge’s Dylan Lonergan, who rushed 11 times for 54 yards himself. Mill Creek’s Terell Battle and Peachtree Ridge’s Miles Massengill added a pair of 15-yard catches.
GFL opened with a 13-play scoring drive that sapped seven minutes, 24 seconds off the clock — most of the 10-minute first quarter. Downs had 43 rushing yards on the march, capping the drive with an 11-yard TD run on fourth-and-8 off an option pitch from Lonergan.
A 0-yard punt set up Dade on GFL’s 14-yard line early in the second quarter. A TD and the ensuing two-point conversion put Dade up 8-6. A score with 40 seconds left before halftime extended the lead to 14-6. A kickoff return score to open the second half pushed the lead to 22-6, then another score with 2:16 left in the third quarter stretched the margin to 28-6.
GFL answered with a 15-play scoring drive capped by Downs’ 1-yard TD run. Downs had three third-down conversion runs, as well as one fourth-down conversion run, on the drive. Lonergan also hit Battle for 15 yards on a third-and-13 play.
After the GFL defense got a stop, GFL ran 12 plays and reached the Dade 8-yard line behind Lonergan. Mill Creek’s Brendan Jenkins had two of his three catches on the possession. But the drive halted with an interception at the 2-yard line that Dade returned 98 yards for the clinching score.
GFL, coached by Mill Creek’s Pat Mullins, had been dominant through the tourney’s first four games, giving up a combined six points in its four victories. It reached the championship game with back-to-back victories over the weekend, defeating South Dakota 36-0 in Saturday’s quarterfinals and topping Dallas Metro (Texas) 30-0 in Sunday’s semifinals.
Before advancing to Naples, the team won the Gwinnett Super Regional with a 39-6 win over Houston (Texas) and a 8-0 win over Broward (Fla.) in the final.
Other members of the GFL national runner-up team were E.J. Adams (Grayson), Michael Daugherty (Grayson), Makhail Wood (Mill Creek), Devin Caldwell (Peachtree Ridge), Broc Walker (Buford), Jaydn Davis (North Gwinnett), Zaire Goff (Roswell), Hayden Clark (Peachtree Ridge), Cory Elliott (Grayson), Cole Mullins (Mill Creek), J.T. McCullough (Buford), Matthew Haber (Mill Creek), Brendan Jenkins (Mill Creek), D’Anthony Crenshaw-Crayton (Hapeville), Benjamin Brookshire (Mill Creek), Jalen Smith (Grayson), Jordan Davenport (Grayson), Cooper Bothwell (Mill Creek), Kayden McDonald (North Gwinnett), Kylen Shields (Brookwood), Joseph Leslie (Brookwood), Hamp Childs (Mill Creek), Correy Mays Jr. (South Gwinnett), Jamir Charlton (Parkview), Dylan Harris (Lawrenceville), Mannie Marshall (Mill Creek), Austin Jackson (Dacula) and Bryce Bothwell (Mill Creek).