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Gainesville opens season with 2 big tests
Gainesville High defensive coordinator Jim Pavao works with his players on the school’s practice field Wednesday afternoon. Tonight the Red Elephants kick-off the 2012 season hosting West Forsyth at City Park.

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West Forsyth at Gainesville

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: City Park Stadium, Gainesville

Radio: 550 AM

TV: WSB-TV (Comcast 248, Charter 126)

Coaches: Gainesville, Bruce Miller; West Forsyth, Frank Hepler

Records: Gainesville (0-0, 0-0 Region 8-AAAAA); West Forsyth (0-0, 0-0 6-AAAAAA)

Key players: Gainesville, QB Deshaun Watson (6-3, 195 Jr.), WR/DB Fred Payne (5-11, 180 Sr.), WR/KR Tray Harrison (5-7, 150 Sr.). West Forsyth, QB AJ Erdely (6-3, 200 Sr.); RB Jake Wieczorek (6-0, 190 Sr.); RB/LB Mohamed Camara (6-2, 205 Sr.)

Prediction: GAINESVILLE. The Red Elephants will have a tough time stopping the Wolverines’ Wing-T-based running game, but behind Watson, Gainesville is built to win a shootout.

Gainesville’s 2011 season could have hardly started with an uglier opening game — a 49-0 loss to Buford.

All the blowout did for the Red Elephants was jump start a 12-game winning streak, leading them to the Class AAA state semifinals.

“Our kids, instead of acting like whipped puppies, we rose to the challenge,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said.“These kids the last four years have been the type that, when we meet a challenge, we meet it head on.”

Buford is back on the schedule this year, but first Gainesville is welcoming in another stiff test in 2011 Class AAAAA quarterfinalist West Forsyth (11-2 in 2011), now in the state’s highest classification. The game at 7:30 tonight will be broadcast by WSB-TV as the Thursday Night Game of the Week.

Miller doesn’t like to start a season without a challenge, especially when his team is rising two classifications from AAA to AAAAA.

“It’s something I wanted to do with us changing classes,” Miller said. “I felt it was necessary to play the best competition we can play to see if we’re ready for class AAAAA football.

“I just don’t think you can find out a lot about yourself when you play a team you can easily beat.”

The Red Elephants should find out a lot about themselves before the start of the eight-game Region 8-AAAAA schedule — last year West Forsyth and Buford were a combined 25-3.

Wolverines coach Frank Hepler was thinking in largely the same vein when he scheduled Gainesville and Flowery Branch, both top-10 teams in Class AAAAA, to open the season.

“We wanted to step up,” he said. “We wanted to play teams that were well-coached, with great athletes.

“They say iron sharpens iron. If we can come out on top, that’s a bonus. If not, we learn from our mistakes and improve next week.”

That’s what Gainesville did last season after the loss to Buford, although the Red Elephants would prefer to avoid a repeat.

“I think it kind of brought us back to reality,” Miller said. “It made us realize we had a lot of work to do.”

That work isn’t finished, even after a stellar 2011 campaign. Miller said one of the biggest questions for his team as it moves up in class will be in regards to the linemen, something former Flowery Branch coach Lee Shaw said was one of the biggest changes when moving up — teams from every class have skill players, but the bigger teams generally have the better, and deeper, offensive and defensive lines.

Red Elephants senior defensive lineman Conner Calvert is ready to prove that Gainesville can match up with the bigger teams.

“We may not be the biggest, but every guy on our defense is fast,” he said. “We were considered small all last year, and we showed them what we could do with a trip to the semifinals.

“We’ve been going against big offensive lines all last year, so it’s no change.”

Calvert and Miller said the key to Gainesville being able to compete so well against solid opponents, including Sandy Creek last year in the state playoffs, comes down to the Red Elephants playing against the likes of Camden County, McEachern and others over the summer at a West Georgia camp.

“We’ve played against most of the top teams in the summer,” Calvert said. “We know what it’s like, and I think that’s why we did so well last year.”

Calvert doesn’t even mind the fact that, with a broken right arm covered in a cast, he’ll have to line up a little different tonight than usual — he’ll be in a three-point stance instead of a four-point. Not playing in such a big game due to the injury wasn’t even an option, he said.

And not playing a tough team in the opener wasn’t an option for Miller, who was prepared to play an opponent in South Georgia until he was able to hook up with Hepler and schedule the game.

Gainesville senior receiver Tray Harrison sees the season opener as good preparation not just for the region schedule, but for Buford.

“We felt like we needed a really good first game to prepare for Buford,” he said. “And this team’s a lot like Buford. And Buford really prepares us for AAAAA, and that’s a big key for us.”

The Red Elephants expect another tough game with the Wolves even with the perennial state championship contenders having to replace over 30 seniors. And West Forsyth is a good first test, boasting a Middle Tennessee recruit at quarterback (A.J. Erdely) and a South Carolina recruit (Mohamed Camara) leading the defense.

Harrison said one of the keys to a victory over West Forsyth and Buford will be for the Red Elephants to set pace of play. He said the Red Elephants played at Buford’s pace last season in the loss, not taking full advantage of what junior quarterback Deshaun Watson, who accounted for over 4,000 yards and 57 touchdowns last season, can do.

“It’s very exciting to play with somebody like him,” Harrison said. “He’s come a long way since he was a freshman.”

Now the junior signal caller, who is verbally committed to Clemson, is one of the reasons that Gainesville is one of the favorites in Region 8-AAAAA despite the rise in classifications, and part of the reason that the Red Elephants could also start 2-0 despite the tough non-region slate.

“Gainesville could be a top-10 team in any classification,” Hepler said.

More than anything, the Red Elephants’ recent play is why most see Gainesville as a team more than ready for AAAAA football.

“That’s the challenge to our guys, can we play AAAAA football?” Miller said. “I personally think we can, but we’ve got to go prove it.”

And the Red Elephants will open their campaign to prove they belong against one of the better teams that the highest class has to offer.

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