Milton 35, Grayson 12

ALPHARETTA – Milton High two-way star Debron Gatling’s leg started cramping the second his hands hit the football. But with a sea of green in front of him, he had one thought on his mind.

“Run,” he said. “Just run.”

Gatling jumped a route late in the third quarter with his team clinging to a 12-point lead and visiting Grayson threatening, just outside the red zone. He got to Rams quarterback Jeff Davis’ pass first, intercepting it and sprinting down the sideline. With one crucial block, Gatling ignored his tightening leg muscle for a touchdown return that effectively put the game out of reach.

Milton topped Grayson 35-12 in the Class 7A state quarterfinals to advance to the final four for the second consecutive season. The Eagles will face Mill Creek next week for a chance to go to back-to-back state title games.

“To be back here with a chance to do something special, it’s a good feeling,” said Milton coach Ben Reaves, in his first season as the team’s head coach.

It was a completely dominant effort for the Eagles (10-3), who gave up just 308 total yards, 22 of which came on the ground, and held the Rams (10-3) to their lowest point total of the season. But it was Gatling who will certainly get the headlines.

The junior four-star recruit did it all for the Eagles. He caught two first-half touchdown passes from quarterback Luke Nickel, turning back Grayson after it grabbed an early lead and then extending his team’s advantage to 12 points at the break.

After the Rams scored first on an electric 81-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Davis to Kylan Fox to take a 6-0 lead less than two minutes into the game, Nickel connected with Gatling for a 30-yard scoring strike just two minutes later on which the receiver outjumped his defender in the end zone. Nickel and Gatling connected again with 26 seconds remaining in the first half, this time on an acrobatic 37-yarder that Gatling just kept inbounds to put Milton ahead 21-9 going into halftime.

Grayson began to mount a comeback late in the third quarter, moving the ball to the edge of Milton’s red zone. Davis dropped back from the Eagles 23-yard line and looked to the right sideline for a back shoulder fade to his receiver. Instead, Gatling anticipated the pass perfectly and sold out for it, jumping the route, and grabbing the crucial interception and touchdown return.

“When I caught it, I caught a cramp, so I was just fighting to finish the play,” Gatling said. “I got a block from a teammate and did what I had to do to score.”

As if to put a tidy ribbon on his performance, on the final play of the game with his team’s victory well in hand, Gatling intercepted another pass as the horn sounded. He finished the game with four receptions for 100 yards and two touchdowns to go with his two interceptions.

“He earned his reputation today,” Reaves said of Gatling. “He’s been a little banged up and a little sore, but today he zoned in and took over this game. That’s what big players do when the time comes.”

Milton also got impressive performances from Owen Phillips, who recorded two sacks, and Scott Moskowitz, who finished with 76 yards rushing and a touchdown. Nickel finished 10-of-14 for 143 yards and three touchdown passes.

Now, Milton turns its attention to the state semifinals, a position some figured might have been a longshot after a 2-3 start to the season. Reaves said the start is what built this team mentally and prepared it for these playoff atmospheres.

“We make sure they understand the process here, and the process is that we’re going to make sure we’re going to play the toughest games we can early on to make sure they’re battle tested,” Reaves said. “Whether they’re 5-0 or 0-5, we know that winning the region and peaking in the playoffs is most important.

“We got better from those losses, and because of those losses we’re going to the final four.”

Grayson – 9 – 0 – 0 – 3 – 12

Milton – 14 – 7 – 7 – 7 – 35

First Quarter

GHS – Kylan Fox 81 pass from Jeff Davis (kick failed); 10:26

MHS – Debron Gatling 30 pass from Luke Nickel (Felipe Mota kick); 8:00

GHS – Jimmy Gonzalez 40 field goal; 4:50

MHS – Marc Essley 14 pass from Nickel (Mota kick); 1:57

Second Quarter

MHS – Gatling 37 pass from Nickel (Mota kick); :26

Third Quarter

MHS – Gatling 85 interception return (Mota kick); 1:29

Fourth Quarter

GHS – Gonzalez 25 field goal; 9:59

MHS – Scott Moskowitz 21 run (Mota kick); 5:17