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Gainesville hopes to get hot again at right time

Red Elephants open playoffs against M.L.K. on Friday at City Park Stadium

POSTED: November 14, 2013 12:02 a.m.
Jared Putnam/The Times

Quarterbacks Mikey Gonzalez, left, and Deshaun Watson throw passes during a recent practice at Gainesville High School. The Red Elephants open the Class AAAAA state playoffs on Friday against M.L.K. High at City Park Stadium.

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At this time last season, Gainesville High appeared to be a football team in free fall.

The Red Elephants staggered into the Class AAAAA state playoffs on the heels of two consecutive losses, before quickly righting the ship with a dominant run to the program’s first state championship in the Georgia High School Association.

Gainesville performed at a level unlike anything coach Bruce Miller has seen in his 40-year career on the sidelines during that five-week stretch of postseason play, outscoring opponents 243-96.

As the second-ranked Red Elephants prepare to host M.L.King High (7-3) in the opening round of the Class AAAAA playoffs on Friday at City Park Stadium, Miller would like nothing more than to recapture the magic of a 2012 postseason that began with so much uncertainty.

“I’ve been going back to look at practice schedules all week, thinking, ‘what did I do different (last year)?’” Miller said. “I think one of the biggest things was just that we were loose. After we beat Rome last year (in the opening round) we kind of said, ‘let’s just go play good each week and see what happens.’

“It was just one of those things where we got hot. The first part of the playoffs, I didn’t know if we thought we could win or not, then, boom, we start winning and (then we didn’t) think we could lose and things kind of kept rolling that way.”

The Red Elephants (9-1) enter the 2013 state playoffs as a more confident group than the 2012 squad after winning their final eight games of the season, including a 55-45 victory over Flowery Branch last Friday to secure the Region 8-AAAAA championship and a No. 1 seed in the postseason.

Miller, however, knows that confidence can be a tricky characteristic, and holding a No. 1 seed only assures a team of a first-round game at home. He said he’s used the upset loss suffered by the rival Falcons in 2012 — a 63-43 defeat at the hands of North Paulding in the opening round — as a reminder to his players that a No. 1 seed cannot take a No. 4 seed for granted.

Gainesville senior linebacker Devan Stringer, an Appalachian State signee, said he and his teammates have bought into that mentality and are neither looking back on their 2012 success, nor looking past M.L. King.

“It’s two very different teams (from last year to this year),” said Stringer, who leads the Red Elephants with six tackles for loss and is second on the team with 105 tackles overall. “We’re starting to get the same feeling, but all we need to do is keep getting better every week.

“We only focus on one game at a time; that’s all we’re guaranteed.”

To get past the first round, Gainesville must knock off a battle-tested M.L. King, the No. 4 seed from Region 6-AAAAA. Two of the Lions’ three losses this season came against region rivals and fellow playoff squads Mays (7-3) and Stephenson (8-2) by a combined total of 12 points, while the third was a 60-34 defeat at the hands of top-ranked Tucker.

“They’re very balanced,” Stringer said. “Our biggest key is stopping the run and getting them in third-and-long situations where we know they’re going to pass, and we can start mixing things up. We definitely need to get some pressure on that quarterback (Roland Rivers) because when he sits in that pocket, he can pick you apart.”

If Gainesville’s offense performs close to the level it has thus far this season, Stringer and the Red Elephants’ defense should have some margin for error.

Behind Clemson-bound signal caller Deshaun Watson, Gainesville is averaging 52 points per game. The Red Elephants have been held to fewer than 48 points only once this season: a 38-14 loss to Class AAA No. 1 Buford in Week 2.

Watson, the state’s all-time leading passer, has tallied 2,791 yards and 37 touchdowns through the air this season against only four interceptions in the Red Elephants’ fast-paced spread offense. He also has 698 yards rushing and nine scores on the ground.

Senior wide receiver Jay Gaudlock has been the quarterback’s favorite target in the passing game, after Miller moved him from running back in the offseason.

Gaudlock, who leads the team in receptions (70), receiving yards (994) and receiving touchdowns (12), said he and his fellow seniors realize they are nearing the end of their high school careers and simply want to extend the season.

“For the seniors, it could be our last game any day now,” Gaudlock said. “We’re just going to keep putting points up.

“It’s kind of tough (being in such a fast-paced offense), but every day in practice Coach Miller keeps saying, ‘intensity, intensity, intensity, it’ll carry over to the game,’ and (it does).”

Despite Gainesville’s laundry list of lopsided wins this season, a few questions remain as the team prepares to face much tougher competition than what it saw through the vast majority of the Region 8-AAAAA schedule.

The Red Elephants’ offensive line remains fluid with seven players who have been interchangeable for the team this season, and the team’s young secondary has seen few real tests.

“The offensive line has been a work in progress since we started and I don’t know that it’s over yet. They have really come along right here at the last part of the year,” Miller said.

“I feel like we’ve come around in the defensive backfield, really, better than I thought we would. But, I think we’re really going to get tested in the playoffs because our region didn’t seem to be that strong of a passing region.”

Gainesville won its games by an average of 36 points this season, but Miller said it’s unlikely that any squad is going to play its best football for five consecutive games when matched against the top teams in the state.

From here on out, playing well enough to win is all that matters.

“The biggest thing is to get (players’) minds focused and realizing ... this is really sudden death,” Miller said.

“You lose, you go home.”

The Red Elephants will try for their sixth straight postseason victory when they host the Lions at 7:30 p.m. Friday at City Park Stadium.



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