LAWRENCEVILLE - Stuck in a hospital bed last year fighting cancer, this is the kind of feeling Dennis Roland thought he might never have again.
The rush of Friday night high school football. The thrill of victory. The smiles on victorious teenagers' faces.
The first-year Central Gwinnett head coach got to see all three in the season opener as the host Black Knights defeated turnover-plagued Dacula 31-14. It was a milestone night for a number of reasons - it was Central's 300th all-time win and Roland's 100th as a head coach - but the most emotion was felt for the coach making his cancer-free debut at the Lawrenceville school.
"Being on the sidelines tonight with these kids, they did what we asked them to do and I love them," said Roland, clutching the game ball he was just awarded. "I can't tell you how great it is not to be in the hospital bed, and a lot of people are (in the hospital) tonight. I don't take it for granted.
"I just thank God that he's allowed me to do this again, to be around young people."
Roland can thank Dacula and its four first-half turnovers for aiding the win, but it was star tailback Diante Drake who put the Falcons away. The junior broke off touchdown runs of 65 and 75 yards slightly more than two minutes apart in the third quarter as the Black Knights built a 31-7 lead.
Central's pass-heavy attack never got going as Devan Strickland threw for just 58 yards, but the offense rushed for 184 yards, 175 of them from Drake on 11 carries.
"That means a great deal (to win the game for Roland)," Drake said. "For us to help him out was great because he helped us out."
The first half was miserable for Dacula, which fumbled three times (losing two) and threw an interception on its first three possessions. The second fumble was scooped up by 370-pound Central lineman Dewayne Cherrington for an apparent 40-yard TD, but an unnecessary illegal block at the 4-yard line took the big guy's moment away.
The Black Knights settled for a 21-yard Steven Bott field goal, but the defense answered with a score when Central's Khary Powell returned an interception 42 yards for a TD early in the second quarter. Dacula's fourth turnover of the half set up a 2-yard TD run by Strickland just before halftime for a 17-0 Central lead.
At halftime, Dacula had 23 total yards with its four turnovers. Half of the Falcons' 20 rushes were for no gain or worse.
They changed their luck just a minute into the second half when Taylor Smith hit Cody Davis for a 50-yard TD pass to get within 17-7.
The joy lasted barely more than a minute.
That's when Drake ripped off a 65-yard scoring run, breaking three tackles near the line before sailing into the open field. After a defensive stop, Drake took the first play of Central's next drive and rolled 75 yards up the middle for a 31-7 lead.
Smith threw another TD pass, this one to Marshall Steed, with 1:39 left, but it didn't matter in the outcome.
Aside from two big pass plays, Central's defense was superb as the front line of Cherrington, Michael Longo and Josh Aiken-Phillips held Dacula to 70 rushing yards on 36 attempts.
Roland had nothing but praise for those three guys, and for the rest of his players. They provided bliss the coach wondered at one point if he'd ever find again.
"It's a great feeling," Roland said. "I can't think of any place I'd rather be than Central Gwinnett High School."
CENTRAL GWINNETT 31
31 FIRST QUARTER
Central: Steven Bott 21 FG, 12:00
Central: Khary Powell 42 interception return (kick failed) 10:18
Central: Devan Strickland 2 run (Diante Drake run) :03
Dacula: Cody Davis 50 pass from Taylor Smith (Jonathan Pineda kick) 11:00
Central: Drake 65 run (Bott kick) 9:43
Central: Drake 75 run (Bott kick) 7:24
Dacula: Marshall Steed 22 pass from Smith (Pineda kick) 1:39