Tim Rucker isn’t trying to dramatize the meaning of tonight’s Region 8-AAA championship game in Cleveland against White County.
However, Rucker, a Gainesville High senior defensive end, sees this matchup as the biggest game of his career. Yeah, even bigger than when the Red Elephants (8-1, 5-0 Region 8B-AAA) played for the Class AAA state title last season. Also bigger than when Gainesville defeated Flowery Branch in the final game of the regular season in 2008 and 2009 to capture the Region 7-AAA title.
This is real big — “the biggest game ever,” Rucker said. “We gotta have it.”
This year’s region championship will be settled in a true format. The north subregion champion Warriors (8-1, 5-0 Region 8A-AAA) will play host, per preseason arrangements, to the Red Elephants, even though Gainesville won the head-to-head matchup early in the regular season.
Since that point, both teams swept through their respective subregions, leaving little debate as to which teams earned the right to play for a region title.
Gainesville is trying to earn its third consecutive region title. White County is looking for its first region title in school history.
White County senior Patrick Jones says his motivation is still playing for former coach Gregg Segraves, who resigned his position earlier this season amidst allegations of domestic violence by his wife.
“We’re trying not to get overexcited about this game, but it would mean the world to everyone here to win the region championship,” Jones said. “We want to win this for coach Segraves.
“He started it with our class of seniors four years ago, now we want to finish it.”
Gainesville coach Bruce Miller equates the region title game to essentially having another playoff game. He knows his team needs to win to play at home for at least the first two weeks of the postseason, barring an upset in the playoff opener. However, the Red Elephants and Warriors both enjoy knowing they have homefield advantage for the first week of the postseason as a result of winning their respective subregion.
With that type of security, Warriors coach Tommy Flowers knows this isn’t a win-at-all cost game.
“To be honest, we’re treating this game just like every one of the first nine we played,” Flowers said. “Our team knows they have to look at it just like another football game.”
However, the crowd will have anything but a regular season feel to it. Not only will Gainesville and White County fans fill the stands at Warriors Stadium, but fans of other programs across the area will show up to see how it all pans out.
“We expect all our fans to be there,” Gainesville running back Devon Pierce said. “We heard they’re even going to close down the town (Cleveland) for this one.”
On the field, both teams are looking to play better than their meeting on Sept. 3, when Gainesville won 31-22.
Flowers pointed to tackling lapses by his own team and a fumbled kickoff that Gainesville recovered and returned for a touchdown as a pivotal moment. Miller said both teams have improved from an early loss (Gainesville’s loss came to Buford in Week 1) and added that it is sometimes harder to beat a team the second time around.
“White County has had a great season,” Miller said. “We didn’t play really well the first time we played them this season.
“I expect this to be a great game for the region title.”
White County will have the task of defending Gainesville freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson (1,518 passing yards and 15 touchdowns, 452 rushing yards), and running backs Pierce (583 yards, seven touchdowns) and Markece Robertson (412 yards, seven touchdowns).
“We feel like we got to go out and hit them where it hurts,” Pierce said.
The Red Elephants also have a trio of wide receivers (Stephen Mason, Michael Lorentz and Keyontra Harrison) each with at least 200 yards receiving.
Flowers is particularly impressed with what Watson can do on the field.
“He is really good under pressure and doesn’t get rattled,” Flowers said of Watson. “He spreads the ball around really well and is just a good overall athlete.”
The Warriors are led on offense by sophomore quarterback Cole Segraves and running back/wide receiver Ashely Lowery. White County is also big across the line of scrimmage and has done well against the run this season.
“We know that White County is real tough and is not going to be a pushover in any way, shape or form,” Rucker said.