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Gainesville hosts Mundy’s Mill in third straight quarterfinals appearance

POSTED: November 29, 2013 12:04 a.m.
Jared Putnam | The Times/

Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) runs the football as Buford defender Joshua Thomas (1) closes in for a tackle during a game on Sept. 6 at City Park Stadium in Gainesville. The Red Elephants host Mundy's Mill tonight in the Class AAAAA state quarterfinals.

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This isn’t uncharted territory for the Gainesville Red Elephants. If anything, the members of Gainesville’s football team expected to be here, practicing the week of Thanksgiving and playing in a high-profile quarterfinal matchup on Black Friday.

“Our kids have done it so often now — I can’t think of a Thanksgiving where we didn’t practice — and I think we’ve done it enough that our kids have come to understand that this is the way it is going to be,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said.

“I think our guys would be disappointed if we weren’t practicing on Thanksgiving.”

Once again, Gainesville’s players practiced throughout the holiday week, preparing to make the school’s fifth appearance in the state quarterfinals in the past seven years when they host the Mundy’s Mill Tigers (8-4) tonight at City Park Stadium in the Class AAAAA state playoffs. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.

Gainesville enters the game as one of the hottest teams in Class AAAAA this season. 

The Red Elephants (11-1) have won 10 straight games, with their lone loss coming Sept. 6 against Buford, the top-ranked team in Class AAA.

The Red Elephants are the favorites to repeat as state champions this season, according to the latest Maxwell Rankings, which are released weekly.

Despite the latest success and predictions, Miller said his team cannot afford to overlook a Mundy’s Mill team that started the season with a dismal 0-4 record, before winning its last eight games.

“When you’re in the final eight, you know you’re not going to face any teams that are bad,” Miller said. “You’re going to face good football teams.”

A major reason for the Tigers’ turnaround this season is the production they’ve gotten from senior running back Rodney Smith, a two-star prospect who has offers from Minnesota and East Carolina, among others. Smith was limited in the Tigers’ first four games of the season as he made his way back from a torn ACL. Since coming back and finding his form, he has rushed for 1,984 yards and has 24 touchdowns on the season.

He is the defense’s top focus heading into tonight’s game.

“It is very fun to see a great running back,” said linebacker Devan Stringer, an Appalachian State signee. “You live and die for things like that, as a linebacker. If you hold them to short yardage, you’re going to get all the praise.

“But then again, if he gets a bunch of yardage, you’re going to get blamed. So it is definitely a lot of fun to have that challenge ahead of you.

“As a defense, we just have to fill all the gaps, because he is quick enough, where if somebody is not in their gap, he can jump to it and take it all the way.”

If Gainesville can slow down Smith, it will force the Tigers to turn to their shaky passing attack, led by quarterback Rodricous Gates. The junior has thrown for just 1,276 yards with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season.

“If you don’t stop (Smith), you’re not going to win,” Miller said. 

“And I shouldn’t say stop. I think the word is slow him down. Last week, he had 200 yards rushing in the first half.”

Part of Gainesville’s game plan tonight is turning up the pressure on Mundy’s Mill’s defense, which allowed an average of 29.8 points in five games against teams that qualified for the playoffs this year.

“We have to score and get things on our side going faster,” Miller said.

Gainesville senior quarterback Deshaun Watson is coming off a dominating 539-yard performance against South Paulding last week.

On the season, Watson has thrown for 3,248 yards and 52 touchdowns, while also rushing for 956 yards and 11 scores, strengthening his case of repeating as the state’s player of the year.

Jay Gaudlock (1,131 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Rodney Lackey (791 yards, 14 touchdowns) are Watson’s top targets, while junior Michael Byrd (933 yards rushing, 13 touchdowns) leads the team’s rushing game.

“I think and I hope that we’re playing good at the right time,” Miller said. 

“When you get to this point, you can’t afford to have any really bad games. If you have a bad game, you better hope the other team has one too and that you survive.”

One advantage for Gainesville this week is playing at home. Last year, the Red Elephants had to go on the road to Hamilton in the quarterfinals, where they routed Harris County 64-13.

For the Gainesville seniors, tonight could very well be their final game at City Park Stadium. 

The Red Elephants would be forced to go on the road for the state semifinals next week if they win tonight and lose the ensuing coin flip with Ware County or Tucker, while the state championship game will be held at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

“It’s tough because you always love playing at home in front of the city,” Stringer said. 

“Fortunately, with the community that we have, they travel no matter how far the mileage is. Last year, we traveled down to Harris County and we had the same amount of fans as they did.”


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