Great Crossing quarterback Gabe Nichols throws an accurate ball with velocity behind a veteran offensive line that keeps him upright.
His cadre of receivers – led on the highlight film by the springy-legged, sticky-fingered Zackarrey Kelley and Kalib Perry – supply Nichols with the confidence that every throw within a substantial radius is a potential big play.
With each passing week of the football season, those Warhawks get closer to the same page, and the spoils of victory are becoming downright scary.
Nichols threw a school-record five touchdown passes Friday night, most notably a gravity-defying grab by Kelley in the back right corner of the end zone, to fuel a 42-6 homecoming rout of East Jessamine.
“I just put it up to where I know only they can get it. I know they can go do it,” said the junior Nichols, who completed 15 of 20 passes for 228 yards. “Our team is great. Defense is great. Offense is great. We’ve just got it all together now.”
Great Crossing (4-0) stayed undefeated and broke its record set last October for most consecutive wins.
After channeling Randy Moss, Julio Jones or fill in the name of your favorite TV star wideout here, Kelley caught two more of Nichols’ scores.
On those occasions, speed was more crucial than balance and hand-eye coordination. Kelley simply turned on the jets on a 30-yard hook-and-go with 3:20 left in the second quarter.
He completed the hat trick when Nichols dropped a 29-yard dime over his shoulder to punctuate the opening possession of the second half. Of course, all friends and family gathered around Kelley with their phone cameras after the game wanted to know about was The Catch.
“I just practice hard, and when it comes to a game, use everything we practice in a game,” Kelley said. “I felt like that (leap) was the only way I could get to the ball. I knew I had to get at least one foot in, so I got it down, dragged it, got it in.”
Coach Ricky Bowling confirmed the 6-foot, 174-pound junior’s words about his work ethic.
“In my years, and I know I’ve not been coaching very long, but I’ve been playing and been around football, I have not seen many high school catches that will hold up to that one,” Bowling said. “That was unbelievable. Z’s a kid that if you come to practice, you’ll see him do that at least once or twice a week. Tonight he did it in a game.”
Jacob Coulter caught Nichols’ other two bombs, an 11-yarder to make it 21-0 just before the half, and from 47 yards to hasten the running clock with 1:10 to go in the third.
“We finally figured out how they were rotating some of their formations,” Bowling said. “We liked those matchups, and we took advantage of it. Gabe threw a great ball in the right spot for our guys to make a play.”
Drake Byrd’s 63-yard punt return supplied the Warhawks’ other trip to the end zone.
And have we gotten this far without mentioning the Great Crossing defense, statistically near the top of every major category in Class 5A?
It begrudgingly gave up a touchdown for only the third time all season, a 1-yard run by Tajii Jackson after GC built a 35-0 lead. The Jaguars (0-4) amassed 66 of their 96 yards all night on that drive.
“I feel like we’ve got the best defense in the state, honestly. We’ve been working since year one, so now that we’re all senior-led, I feel like we’re all together,” defensive tackle Tre Combs said. “No. 7 (Jackson), he’s a baller. It just took more than one player to tackle him, but when we tackled him, we shut down their whole offense."
Combs, Chase Little, Oryend Fisher and Will Frazier combined to sack East Jessamine freshman QB Justin Hisle four times.
Coulter followed his first touchdown catch with an interception in the end zone on the final play of the first half.
Most of Fisher’s team-high 10 total tackles accounted for lost yardage.
“They’ve got a couple of running backs who run the ball hard. Their best play was a direct snap, and it happened so quickly that we weren’t getting off the ball quick enough,” Bowling said. “You’re not going to throw goose eggs every week. We’ll be able to coach that up in film and get better from it.”
GC’s starting offense failed to score on only one possession, its second of the night.
The Warhawks had first-and-goal from the 6 after catches by Peyton Harris for 12 yards and Perry for 32. East Jessamine buckled down with a pair of sacks, and Jacob Reeder picked off a fourth-down throw to the end zone.
After the GC defense served up its third consecutive three-and-out to start the game, Nichols went 4-for-4 to three different receivers on the next series, culminating with Kelley’s second TD.
“The ball came out of his hand really well tonight,” Bowling said. “Last week we talked about Gabe coming to the sidelines, seeing things and wanting to throw the ball, and that’s a good sign from your quarterback. This week he was doing the same thing, and he connected on those passes, which is great to see.”
Friday’s result was almost an exact reversal of East Jessamine’s 43-7 win in Nicholasville who years ago.
And yes, that was duly noted ... before, during and after.
“Coach (Simon) Vanderpool (defensive coordinator) came in and had posters all over the locker room, ’43-7.’ We knew what we to do, and we came and did it,” Combs said.
“That’s what they did to us two years ago, so we decided to do it to them,” Nichols added.
Bowling, a prolific former high school quarterback who acknowledged he had “a few” five-touchdown games of his own, didn’t pull punches, either.
“We definitely remembered that,” he said. “We talked about it all week. We went to their place two years ago, first year, and they said some things that we didn’t like, that were disrespectful. They came here tonight and did some disrespectful things, and our kids didn’t like that, so we remember those things.”