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Spirited excitement mounts as high school football starts
Gainesville High School cheerleaders Karina Garcia, back, 16, a junior, and Alexis Koch, 16, a junior, use spray paint Wednesday to cover The Rock in preparation for tonight’s football game against Buford High School. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

The big games start tonight and students across the county are ready.

Gainesville High School cheerleaders have painted The Rock, East Hall High School cheerleaders have rolled their signs and Flowery Branch High School players have practiced their last drills. All three schools have a reason to anticipate tonight’s first game of the season.

“This is a new team, and it’s built differently from last year. How we score touchdowns and how we execute will be different,” said LeeAnn Noble, a senior Gainesville High cheerleader. “Some people are worried because we have a new team and some sophomores are playing varsity, but this game will prove we can still do it.”

Six varsity cheerleaders painted The Rock on Wednesday afternoon, starting the tradition for the school year. Today they’ll decorate the football player’s lockers and give them brownies and cookies. They’ve been preparing all summer and practicing each day, but they’re not the only ones getting ready.

“Our school is big on football, and I can tell the community is getting excited,” said Natasha Cockfield, also a senior. “We wait for and we anticipate this week.”

And this week’s match is a big one.

“Buford is really good, and this is the first time we’ll play them,” said Alexis Coch, a junior. “It’ll be good competition to start off the year.”

At Flowery Branch High School, the players, cheerleaders and fans are gearing up for a new season entirely. Moving up to the 4A division takes them from local competition to regional competition, and they’re facing Madison County High School this week.

“We’ll have to figure out what the differences will be, but the schools in this area play some of the best football in the state, so it’s not like we shouldn’t be prepared,” said Flowery Branch athletic director Shannon Benton. “We don’t know what to expect this week, but the guys are expecting to win and the coaches are expecting to compete. If you give your best, the winning and losing will take care of itself.”

Belton wishes he could keep one or two local schools on the schedule, but moving outside the region isn’t so bad.

“Now we can separate a little. Playing step-brothers and cousins and friends outside your back door is a lot of pressure to be successful,” he said. “Now we’re looking at Clarke Central High School in Athens, which is a renowned power, and Cedar Shoals is very strong. I haven’t seen coach Xarvia Smith in years, and we caught up recently. I know his character and work ethic and how good they’re going to be.”

Moving up a division seems to energize the students, as well.

“The student body is excited. We had a scrimmage at South Forsyth last week, and we had more fans than they did,” he said with a laugh. “The fans are rambunctious and get painted up, and the cheerleaders promote a theme every week. Last week was tie dye, so people were painted up in swirls, and it corresponded with the banner that the players run through.”

With traveling comes more expenses, however.

“It’s more gas for the bus and more time to take out of class,” Benton said. “I also don’t know about some gate sizes and how the money flow is going to be.”

On another end of the county, East Hall High School moved down a division, but fans and football players are just as excited about tonight’s game against West Hall.

“This weekend is big and an example of what the season will look like,” said Jeanilee Gaddis, a senior varsity cheerleader.

“I think we’re going to be better this year.”

The cheerleaders rolled up their first run-through banner on Thursday afternoon, with the phrase “Beating the Spartans ... so easy a caveman could do it!”

“The team is very excited because we’re going to hit someone else instead of each other,” Sterling Bailey, a senior defensive end, said with a smile. “This game is big because we beat them last year, and they’re going to want revenge, but we’re not going to allow it.”

Cheerleading coach Lindsey Wood is thinking of new ideas to encourage the students this year. On Friday morning, the cheerleaders will create a “spirit corner” in the front lobby. This week, students will guess the number of candies in a jar. Wood can sense the building excitement.

“It’s fun seeing the guys get so pumped up about it,” she said. “They say to me, ‘We’re going to the playoffs, Miss.’”

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