The Gainesville High football team made the state semifinals in 2009 and it didn't take the Red Elephants long to make it back again.
Led by a sterling five-touchdown performance by sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson and a great defensive effort to match, the sixth-ranked Red Elephants (12-1) dominated top-ranked Sandy Creek (12-1) 35-21 on Friday at City Park Stadium.
With the win, Gainesville will face Burke County (12-1) in the semifinal round Friday. Gainesville won the coin toss Saturday morning and will host the game.
The win snapped Sandy Creek's state-best 41-game winning streak. The Patriots had not lost a game since the beginning of the 2009 season.
"Some people said this was going to be a rebuilding year here at Gainesville, but we're just building on," said Gainesville junior safety Fred Payne, who was part of a defense that kept Sandy Creek to only 69 passing yards.
Watson's effort only added to his legacy in two short seasons at Gainesville.
Early in the game he was very precise in a short passing game, then opened it up a little more as the game went along.
He finished the game 25 of 35 passing for 220 yards and a pair of touchdown passes to junior Caleb Hayman, who's in his first season in the program from Mill Creek High.
Despite Sandy Creek's ranking, Gainesville's players felt that it was a manageable task. Payne said one big key, especially on defense, was picking up on a lot of Patriots quarterback Cole Garvin's (10 for 23, 69 yards) tendencies.
It worked to near perfection.
"I'm speechless," said Watson. "We're going to celebrate this win tonight, then get back to work Monday,"
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said he felt mid-week the team set a tone in practice that they were serious about winning.
At the center of it all was Watson, who Miller knows is the catalyst of the Red Elephants.
"What a game," Miller said. "This team has always got a surprise for me."
His praise for Hayman was just as strong.
"He's one of those players we've been trying to get on the field all season," Miller said. "He certainly made the most of his opportunity tonight."
With the score tied 21-21 in the third quarter, Watson put the team on his back. With the ball on the Gainesville 20, he orchestrated an eight-play, 80-yard drive that finished with a 15-yard strike to Hayman in the end zone.
The drive started with a loss on a pass play, but the Patriots were flagged for a personal foul.
On the next play, Watson hit Lahius Leverette over the middle for a 17-yard completion, then kept it for a 7-yard run on the next.
Following a 21-yard run by freshman Michael Byrd (seven carries, 53 yards), Watson rushed 12 yards over the next three plays combined.
That set up the touchdown pass to Hayman.
Then with a 28-21 lead, Gainesville's defense made another huge play when it stripped Sandy Creek's Michael Hilton (32 carries, 260 yards) of the ball on its own 27.
Hayman made the play of the game on the first play of the drive when he hauled in a 25-yard strike from Watson and stretched down to the 2.
Watson said Hayman played it according to the plan as a blocker, then snuck open as the play developed.
With the ball at the 2, Watson took it from there and scored on a keeper. That gave the Red Elephants, who finished with 425 yards of offense, a two-touchdown cushion.
He finished the game with 25 carries for 100 yards.
"Deshaun put us on his back," Hayman said. "We all executed well tonight and just stayed on our Ps and Qs."
Sandy Creek's last touchdown came midway through the third quarter on a fourth and 1.
The gamble paid off as Hilton broke through the line of scrimmage and used his speed to pull away for a 66-yard touchdown.
However, the Patriots' gambling ways bit them early in the game.
With Gainesville ahead 7-0 in the second quarter, the Patriots went for it on a fourth and 1 and the Red Elephants stuffed Hilton at the line of scrimmage.
Two plays later, Hayman scored his first touchdown on a 29-yard pass from Watson.
Despite trailing 14-0, the Patriots made a game of it before halftime.
Two long rushing drives were capped by a 19-yard touchdown run by C.J. Washington, then a score by Hilton from the 2 with only :28 seconds remaining in the first half. That tied the score 14-14 going into halftime.
However, the momentum Gainesville built early in the game carried over to the second half.
Sandy Creek stalled on each of its first two offensive possessions in the third quarter.
Then it became a back-and-forth contest for a while, until Watson and the Gainesville offense took control of things.
With the win, Gainesville is just one win away from making it back to the Georgia Dome for the Class AAA state championship game.
And there are a lot of players who would love to make up for a close loss in the 2009 state title game against Peach County.
"I feel like we're ready to go all the way now," Hayman said.