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Defense does it for Gainesville, 21-7
Red Elephants turn turnovers into win over White County, region title
Gainesville High's Fred Payne celebrates the Red Elephants' defensive touchdown during the first quarter of Friday night's region chamionship game with White County High in Cleveland.

CLEVELAND — Winning region titles never gets old for Gainesville's football program.

On Friday, the Red Elephants (9-1) took advantage of three White County turnovers and a key interception by sophomore defensive back Fred Payne early in the fourth quarter to secure a 21-7 win in the Region 8-AAA title game in Cleveland.

With the win, the Red Elephants have won three consecutive region championships and secure the No. 1 seed in the state playoffs.

"All region titles are special," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. "I'm so proud of this team we have.

"They fight so hard and have such a workmanlike mentality every day in practice." The Red Elephants open the postseason against Haralson County (3-7) on Friday at City Park. As region champion, Gainesville owns homefield advantage for at least the first two rounds of the postseason.

"We want to keep improving each week now and be able to play in the Georgia Dome on Dec. 11 (in the state final)," Payne said. "Winning this region title is extremely exciting."

In the championship game, Gainesville freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson was a key part of the win with 13 completions passing for 241 passing yards. The biggest play for the Red Elephants came when Watson spotted a wide-open Michael Lorentz, who ran past the coverage and 92 yards for a touchdown to take a 21-7 lead with 4:15 left in the third quarter.

"He's been composed like that all season," Miller said. "And that was a great job by Michael getting open and making the catch."

Gainesville started the drive at the 1, for the second consecutive possession, and got some breathing room to set up the score with a 6-yard run from Devon Pierce. Then Watson came through with the 92-yard pass, which turned out to be the play of the game.

"They made a big play on us there," White County coach Tommy Flowers said. "We have a turnover and they cause some turnovers, so give Gainesville credit because they did a great job."

With the loss, White County (8-2) will be the No. 2 seed to the playoffs from Region 8-AAA and play host to LaGrange (5-5) on Friday to open the postseason in Cleveland. This marks the Warriors' first playoff appearance since 2007.

"I'm proud of our team no matter what the record," Flowers said. "This is going to be gigantic having a playoff game at home.

"I've said all year that all the games are equal, but we're going to cut loose and have a big party now."
Ashely Lowery led the Warriors with 179 yards rushing, including runs of 23 and 21 yards on the first drive of the game. It set up a White County touchdown on a 3-yard pass from Cole Segraves to Ethan McCallister to take a 7-0 lead early in the first quarter.

Gainesville used its quick-strike offense made possible by Watson's moxie in the pocket and limited time on the clock to score a huge touchdown to go up 14-7 right before halftime.

Gainesville set up its touchdown drive with a field goal block by senior linebacker A.J. Johnson and great ensuing field position. Watson threaded two passes in to his receivers and the go-ahead score on a 4-yard pass for his first touchdown of the game to Lorentz.

On the first play of the drive and the ball at the 40, Watson floated a beautiful pass over the defensive backs head and into the waiting arms of Markece Robertson for a 36-yard completion along the sideline.After Gainesville burned its final timeout, Watson hit a wide-open Lorentz in the end zone for the touchdown pass.

"As a senior, this means so much more to me," Lorentz said. "Now we have to focus on getting better every game now that we're in the playoffs."

For the most part, it was a first half filled with a number of crazy plays.

Trailing 7-0 midway through the first quarter, Gainesville scored the equalizer on a fumble recovery in the end zone by senior linebacker Mantevius Rucker.

That was the big momentum swing the Red Elephants needed after losing 33 yards on their opening drive with a snap over Johnson's head for a 25-yard loss, a fumble and recovery on the second play of the drive for a big loss on a backward pass, then a punt on third down to pin White County deep in its own territory.

Then tied 7-7 with 3:15 remaining in the first half, Lowery started the drive by bouncing off three defenders at the 1 and got into the open field and ran for 67 yards. The Warriors completed a pass into the end zone for a would-be touchdown, but it was called back on an ineligible-receiver-downfield penalty.

Then on the field goal attempt, Johnson came through with the block and Mike Norman returned it deep into White County territory. The ball was brought back to the 40 yard line with penalties on each team.

At halftime, the White County High softball team was honored for winning the Class AAA state softball title last Saturday in Columbus. It marked the first team state for the school since the 1981 girls basketball program won state.


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