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A year of ups and downs ends with Gainesville on top
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller holds the Class AAAAA state championship trophy in his office after returning from Atlanta Friday night. - photo by Tom Reed

The Gainesville Red Elephants didn’t enter the state playoffs with the look of a state title contender.

No, they entered on a two-game losing streak, including a 46-41 loss to a Loganville team that finished the year 4-6.

“We were on a two-game losing streak,” coach Bruce Miller said with a chuckle Monday, just a couple days removed from a definitive win in the Class AAAAA state championship game to deliver Gainesville, and Hall County, its first GHSA state title.

All that matters is that Big Red ended the year on a five-game winning streak.

“I think we played Rome and we won pretty convincingly, and then in the second half against a good Kell team we caught fire, and we were on fire ever since,” Miller added. “From then on we played a different way. The Kell game said we could be this good if we wanted to be.”

The Red Elephants trailed 35-21 at the half in the second round game in Marietta, at risk of seeing a season that had included so much promise, slip away far too soon.

Gainesville rallied to win that game 61-42 — it was the only playoff team that the Red Elephants allowed to score more than 14 points.

In doing so, Gainesville became the first team since Marietta High in 1967 to win a state title after losing its final two regular season games, according to Georgia High School Football Daily.

And the Red Elephants didn’t just win, they dominated in the postseason, outscoring their five opponents by a combined 243-96, or an average of 48.6-19.2 per game. That’s compared to the regular season, in which Gainesville outscored opponents by an average margin of 43.7-21.9 — meaning Big Red managed to win by even bigger margins when the opponents were, supposedly, even better.

And the Red Elephants couldn’t have capped off the historic season, routing Ware County and Class AAAAA’s top defense, 49-13.

“In the first quarter we scored back-to-back, and you could see in their defense that they were confused and they couldn’t stop us, and I told my teammates to keep doing what they were doing and we could run away with this thing,” Gainesville junior quarterback Deshaun Watson remembered. “This game we were just going all out, making a statement that we’re the best team in AAAAA, and we are.”

Not only that, but the Red Elephants were part of a trio of teams to make a statement for Northeast Georgia, along with fellow state champs Buford (AAA) and Jefferson (AA).

“That tells you the football in North Georgia’s pretty good,” Miller said. “And South Georgia sometimes doesn’t give us credit.”

It’s likely that Ware County, from Waycross down near the Florida border, doesn’t mind giving credit after meeting Gainesville on the field.

Miller credited his coaching staff with putting together a gameplan for the state championship game that took advantage of Ware County’s weaknesses and amplifying Gainesville’s strengths, and the players for executing it to perfection.

Miller was particularly impressed with his wide receivers not dropping a pass, something that the coach considers nearly as bad as a fumble in Gainesville’s no-huddle spread offense.

He was equally impressed with senior receiver Caleb Hayman catching all 11 passes thrown his way, including two for touchdowns.

“They didn’t have an answer for him, he played super all night, made catch after catch after catch and played a game he’ll always remember,” Miller said. “They didn’t have an answer for him because they were trying to play man coverage with him.

“I thought it was by far the best game we have played,” Miller added. “Until then I thought it was Sandy Creek last season.”

Gainesville won that game 35-21 in 2011, upsetting the No. 1 team in the state before being routed themselves by Burke County, 63-28, in the semifinals.

Interesting tidbit: Last year’s team actually finished with a better winning percentage (.857) than this year’s team (.800).

But the Red Elephants were only on the winning end of routs this season, and their three losses were only by a combined eight points, including losing by one to eventual region champs Flowery Branch and two to playoff-bound Class AAAAAA opponent West Forsyth.

They also beat eventual Class AAA state champs Buford 19-15 in the regular season and handled Region 8-AAAAA’s No. 3 and No. 4 seeds to state, Clarke Central and Heritage, without too much trouble.

The loss to Loganville was the one real shock, and it may have been, in retrospect, one of the most important moments of the season.

“When you’re looking back at it now, that loss might have been one that allowed all this to happen,” Miller said.

Now, Miller and the Red Elephants will take some time to enjoy the historic season and relax for the holiday season, but not too long.

“I’m going to enjoy this for a week or two, but pretty much after that we’ll be ready to get back,” the coach said. “And you prepare the same way, just create that hunger to want to do it again.”

“We want to get better and repeat,” Watson said. “It’s gonna be harder, a lot of teams are going to really want to beat us, but I’m already thinking about next year — I just plan on getting better and becoming better.

“We’re going to be good next year.”

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