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Local teams aim to paint the Dome red and green
Gainesville, North Hall fans savor surprise state playoff runs
North Hall High School cheerleaders Lathem Armour right, and Abby Cape hang a banner along Jim Hood Road for the football team, which faces St. Pius X tonight in the Class AAA state semifinal game in Atlanta. - photo by Tom Reed

Tonight’s state semifinals

All games 7:30 p.m.

Gainesville at Whitewater, Fayetteville
North Hall at St. Pius X, Atlanta
Buford at Cartersville
Greater Atlanta Christian at Jefferson

It’s been an unexpected journey to success for followers of two local high school football teams.

One, for decades, has been no stranger to playoff runs and playing under the roof of the Georgia Dome. The other has had a string of recent success but never has gotten over the hump of playing for a state title.

But the two have one thing in common: no Georgia High School Association state championships to their name.

Gainesville and North Hall high schools look to change that, beginning tonight in the state semifinals. A victory for either would send them to next weekend’s state finals in the Dome.

The Red Elephants (10-3) travel to Fayetteville to take on the Whitewater Wildcats (12-1) and are looking to avenge a state title loss in 2009.

“I think the team is really humble and have a lot of experience,” said Sims Griffith, a junior at Gainesville. “They definitely know what they’re getting into. They haven’t felt what it’s like to be in the Dome, except for the seniors. I’m really excited that they get the chance to do that.”

The Trojans (11-2) sniffed a title shot in 2007 but fell in the semifinal, their only loss on the year. A win tonight over the St. Pius X Golden Lions (11-2) would give them a title game appearance.

“We have a big game against a very, very good team,” North Hall Principal Joe Gheesling said. “They are a traditional power in football and most everything else, so we feel like we have a big challenge ahead of us.
“This is probably the best shot we’ve ever had to get to the state finals.”

But if the schools were polled at the beginning of the year, few would have guessed either team would be in this position. Last year, Gainesville made the jump from Class AAA to Class AAAAA and North Hall was coming off a 4-6 record.

It’s that surprise, however, that makes this season so special for not only the players, but their fans.

“I think another thing that makes this year more exciting is our move up to AAAAA,” said Adam Miller, a teacher at Gainesville. “A lot of people had their reservations on whether we could compete with jumping two classifications. There was a lot of skepticism about that. I think even among coaches and players, they had their own doubts early in the season, just a lot of unknowns, and I think they’ve proven they’re more than capable.”

Colton Duttweiler, a senior at North Hall, even said a poll taken in his math class at the beginning of the season only gave the Trojans a 20 percent shot at making the playoffs.

“It’s awesome,” Duttweiler said. “No one expected this to happen.”

And now that it’s a reality for both schools, red- and green-clad students, faculty and staff can be seen in droves on each campus.

“It’s all anyone can talk about,” said Elizabeth McKay, a senior at North Hall. “It’s been the buzz around the school.” That buzz has even maturated into confidence, on both campuses, going into tonight’s games.

“I think everybody is really excited to have this opportunity again,” said Adrian Cromwell, assistant principal at Gainesville. “The feeling from teachers and even the administrators is that we’d like to get it done. We’ve had a few years where we’ve made some pretty deep runs in the playoffs and I think everyone is really expecting us to complete this and get the first championship for the football program.”

That feeling is shared a few miles to the north.

“We have very high expectations,” said Gheesling. “I expect us to win; I expect us to compete and give our very best and be successful and I try to communicate that to all our kids, teachers and our community.”