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Lanier's inaugural game a community celebration

Photo by Brian Giandelone

Photo by Brian Giandelone

SUGAR HILL -- Beyond dusk Wednesday, Lanier football coach Billy Wells still was striping his brand new football field, his cell phone tuckered to the same 2 percent power he was.

Booster club president Steve Edwards was making last-minute checks of the stadium at Gwinnett's new high school until nearly 10:30. Edwards' wife, Denise, was assembling a grill to cook burgers and dogs for the hungry crowd expected for Thursday's first-ever game, against Mill Creek's junior varsity.

By kickoff at 6 p.m. Thursday, years of anticipation, months of hype and hours of frantic attention to final detail had flourished into reality: The beginning of Lanier's football legacy.

"There's so much going on, so many moving parts," said Steve Edwards, a Sugar Hill city councilman. "The community has come together and has really rallied around this school in a great way."

As fans of the only high school among seven campuses opened in Gwinnett this year, Lanier fans must have been pinching themselves that football finally had arrived. An intra-squad scrimmage a week earlier was one thing, but finally knocking heads against someone else was an emotional Super Bowl.

"When you've been going against yourself for four or five weeks, you're definitely ready to hit on someone else," said Wells, the former coach at Collins Hill. "Practice is one thing, but finally getting to play a game is another."

A steady stream of fans trekked hundreds of yards uphill from a far away parking lot. The stands were a third full, the home faithful squinting into the merciless sun straight across. Kids bounced in inflatable play areas in the north end zone. The occasional moo of a longhorn played over the speakers, interspersed between public address announcements by Lanier Middle Principal Jaime Espinosa. State House representative Josh Clark reportedly served burgers and hot dogs in the concession area.

Two dozen Longhorn cheerleaders rocked, seemingly more practiced than the few months they had. Male students stood seven abreast, each with a white letter emblazoned on his orange chest, spelling "Lanier!"

Freshman Meg McRee was ablur in body paint, donning a shirt that decreed "Let the Stampede Begin."

"It's going to be cool to come back years from now and see how the football program has grown and gotten better and better," she said.

Even before Lanier kicked off to the visitors, though, the enthusiasm was as palpable as county school board member Carole Boyce sensed it was upon touring Lanier during school two weeks ago.

"It's always a boost to see the kids in operation, and just the enthusiasm is tremendous to see," she had said.

Sugar Hill Mayor Gary Pirkle insisted he wouldn't have missed Thursday's opening game for anything. Driving daily down Buford Highway, he kept tabs on the 250,000-square-foot enlargement of the former Lanier Middle into Lanier High, with particularly watchful eye on the stadium.

An outspoken supporter of North Gwinnett, he's now one of Lanier's, too.

"It's easy to get behind an established school, but to get behind a brand new one like this is exciting," he said. "North Gwinnett has made their mark academically as well as athletically, and they've set a good path for Lanier to follow."

Athletically, Mill Creek initially stole the show Thursday, scoring the first three touchdowns to lead 21-0 by halftime en route to a 35-7 win. But then came a string of firsts that Lanier fans likely won't soon forget.

There was Lanier's first interception by Onyx Berrios at Lanier's 22-yard line 42 seconds before halftime. Then came Lanier's first fumble recovery by Andre Johnson at Lanier's 41 with 7:14 left in the third.

But most highly awaited, however, was freshman Donte Borders' first touchdown run for the Longhorns from a yard out, followed by Gem Vang's extra-point kick that brought Lanier within 21-7 with 4:26 to go in the third.

That first score in school history followed Jordan Humphrey's 35-yard reception from Courtney Witt to Mill Creek's 20, then Borders' 19-yard run to set up his historical score.

"I really didn't think too much of it, but it's just now hitting me," said Borders, a four-year youth league player in his first season of school ball. "It's all I ever dreamed about, what happened out there today."