Milton 45, Grayson 35

Milton coach Ben Reaves talks and celebrates with his team after a 45-35 win over Grayson in the Class 7A semifinals on Dec. 2, 2023, at Grayson Community Stadium.

Credit: Stan Awtrey

Credit: Stan Awtrey

Milton coach Ben Reaves talks and celebrates with his team after a 45-35 win over Grayson in the Class 7A semifinals on Dec. 2, 2023, at Grayson Community Stadium.

Luke Nickel typically gets overlooked when the discussion turns to who might be the best high school quarterback in Georgia. But the Milton senior is changing the narrative and on Friday converted a lot of believers at Grayson.

Nickel, who has committed to Miami, completed 30 of 51 passes for 417 yards and four touchdowns and ran 15 times for 74 yards and one touchdown to lead No. 10 Milton to a 45-35 road win over No. 6 Grayson in the Class 7A semifinals.

Milton (12-2) will play Walton in the championship game.

“He’s the best quarterback in the state, you know,” Milton coach Ben Reaves said. “I know we’ll see a good one next week (Walton’s Jeremy Hecklinski) but Luke has all the attributes to be a great quarterback. He’s got some internal stuff and he’s got some toughness about him. He’s put the team on his back. I’m blessed he’s our quarterback.”

Nickel engineered scoring drives on his team’s first three possessions, a 41-yard touchdown to C.J. Wiley, a 30-yard touchdown to Tristen Payne and an 8-yard touchdown to Debron Gatling. He added an 8-yard touchdown run and a 6-yard touchdown pass to Payne in the second half.

“The key was just to fight all four quarters,” Nickel said. “We knew this was going to be a hard-fought game. We knew there were going to be some momentum swings and we had to take care of it. I just feel like we wanted it more tonight and that showed. I’m excited to go to the Benz.”

Milton will be trying to win its second state title -- Nickel’s older brother was a freshman on that 2018 championship team – and the quarterback remembers going to that game.

“That’s just a special moment,” he said. “That’s why we won the game tonight, because we want to be back in that moment and win a state championship.”

Nickel had plenty of help with his stable of reliable receivers. Wiley caught 10 passes for 134 yards and one touchdown, Payne caught eight passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns, and Texas A&M commit Gatling caught seven passes for 80 yards and one touchdown. The Eagles also got field goals of 38, 35 and 35 yards from Alex Nover.

Grayson (11-3) was led by quarterback Jeff Davis, who completed 15 of 23 passe for 304 yards, with Aiden Taylor catching seven passes for 154 yards and a 73-yard touchdown. The other scoring pass went to Cineas, who had three receptions for 135 yards and one touchdown and returned a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. But the Rams only rushed for 103 yards, getting a 3-yard touchdown run by Ma’khi Jones and a 10-yard run by T.J. Lester.

Milton led 27-21 at the half and stretched the lead to 38-21 but couldn’t put the big-play Rams away until the fourth quarter. An 11-play touchdown drive upped the lead to 45-28, but Cineas kept hope alive with the kickoff return. The Eagles were able to control the ball and run out the final 6:27, opting to take a knee and end the game rather than run up the score.

“When you get down to these last couple of games, there’s going to be big moments, there’s going to be big plays,” Reaves said. “Every team is good, so you can’t let one pay define the game. I tell them, ‘Just stay with me for four quarters” … not get too high, not get too low and just see what happens in all four quarters. They were able to handle the big plays the right way and come back hungry and get a stop the next time.”

Milton lost two early regular-season games to Western (Fla.) and North Cobb, but the Eagles powered through their Region 6 scheduled undefeated and have won nine straight. Milton didn’t get into the AJC rankings until the final week, when they were placed at No. 10.

“We challenged ourselves for hard games early on by design,” Reaves said. “Just to be able to hopefully finish it out on our terms and play for a state title is all I can ask for.”

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