Gainesville High hung around all night Friday in the Class 6A state championship game at Center Parc Stadium. Despite entering the game as a heavy underdog, it kept Langston Hughes within striking distance all game.

In the end, though, the Panthers just caught a little more Air. Langston Hughes quarterback Air Noland tossed two touchdown passes in the span of 14 seconds at the end of the second quarter, turning a one-possession game into a commanding halftime lead. The Panthers fought off their pesky opponents down the stretch in a 35-28 win. The victory clinched Hughes’ first state championship in its 14-year history, finishing the drill one year after falling to Buford by one point in the 2021 6A state title game. It was a full-circle moment for Noland.

“This is an amazing feeling,” said Noland, a four-star recruit who is yet to issue a college commitment. “I’ve done something that’s never been done in Langston Hughes history. My coaching staff did something that’s never been done. My team did something that’s never been done. It comes down to all of us, from the coaches to the team managers. We did something special.”

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Fending off an impressive defensive showing that had limited it to just nine points late in the first half, Hughes (15-0) got the ball back after a Gainesville (14-1) field goal had cut its lead to 9-6 with 59 seconds left in the first quarter. The Panthers had scored at least 40 points in every game this season, averaging 54 points per contest and 56 per game in the playoffs. An offense as effective as the Panthers’, though, wasn’t going to be satisfied just sitting on the ball for the remaining minute of the second quarter. Instead, Noland connected on three straight passes, 24- and 25-yarders across the middle to Jaden Barnes and a 15-yard catch and run to running back Jekail Middlebrook for a touchdown. Gainesville fumbled the ensuing kickoff, giving Hughes another chance with 18 seconds left in the second quarter. It took Noland just one play this time, an 18-yard strike to Barnes for a 23-6 lead at the half.

“Those 14 points were major,” Panthers coach Daniel Williams said. “That was the swing we knew we needed. Every game, we’ve always had a swing. The kids responded there. I mean, look, take away those 14 points and we lose.”

Noland added a second-half touchdown run to put his team up 29-13 after the Red Elephants opened the half with a touchdown. He finished the game 18-of-21 passing for 263 yards and three touchdowns passing to go with the one rushing touchdown. For the season, Noland finished with over 4,000 passing yards, 55 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

“Air is a player, man,” Williams said. “He’s a pro. The team follows him. He was calm, so the team was calm, and we finished.”

Gainesville never disappeared, though. The Red Elephants opened the second half with a 12-play, 60-yard touchdown drive that cut the Hughes lead to 23-13. Quarterback Baxter Wright capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. He connected with receiver Travien Watson for a 7-yard touchdown pass and rushed for a two-point conversion later in the quarter that cut the Hughes lead to eight, 29-21. After a kickoff return for a touchdown made it 35-21, Wright again led a scoring drive. He connected with Watson again for a 10-yard score to make it 35-28. Wright finished the game 22-of-34 for 191 yards and two touchdowns passing to go with a rushing touchdown.

“I knew coach (Josh) Niblett was going to have them ready to play,” Williams said. “We just had to keep responding.”

Despite falling just short of the ultimate prize, the Red Elephants will look back on the 2022 season as an enormous success. In their first season under Niblett, who spent 14 fruitful years as the head coach of Hoover (Ala.) prior to his arrival in Gainesville, the Red Elephants ended a string of six straight seasons in which they failed to make it out of the first round of the state playoffs. This year, they won their first 14 games, a region championship, and gave themselves a real shot at the hardware at the end of the year for the first time since 2012.

Langston Hughes -- 3 -- 20 -- 12 -- 0 -- 35

Gainesville -- 0 -- 6 -- 15 -- 7 -- 28

First Quarter

LH -- Josua Solano 28 field goal; 3:35

Second Quarter

GHS -- Eric Guerra 20 field goal; 11:05

LH -- Jelani Thurman 20 pass from Air Noland (kick blocked); 7:49

GHS -- Guerra 28 field goal; :59

LH -- Jekail Middlebrook 15 pass from Noland (kick blocked); :25

LH -- Jaden Barnes 18 pass from Noland (Thurman pass from Noland); :11

Third Quarter

GHS -- Baxter Wright 2 run (Guerra kick); 7:54

LH -- Noland 1 run (pass failed); 4:01

GHS -- Travien Watson 7 pass from Wright (Wright run); :24

LH -- Middlebrook 72 kickoff return (pass failed); :10

Fourth Quarter

GHS -- Watson 10 pass from Wright (Guerra kick); 3:59