High school football: State semifinal previews
This unexpected playoff run for No. 6 Gainesville has been highlighted by unsung heroes.
The Red Elephants (12-1) have seen players emerge as stars, despite starting the season on the sidelines, all the way down to the scout team players, which have really earned the respect of their coach Bruce Miller.
"We've had different players at different times that have stepped up all along the way," said Miller.
Tonight, Miller would be perfectly content to see another player step into the limelight in the state semifinals against Burke County (12-1), which starts at 7:30 tonight at City Park Stadium.
The winner advances to the Class AAA state championship game to face the Cairo/Peach County winner on Dec. 10 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
And Red Elephants junior outside linebacker Michael Pittman leaves no doubt as to how this story is going
"We're going to bring the state championship trophy home to Gainesville," said Pittman. "There's no ifs, ands or buts about it."
But at a school that has churned out future college standouts, the journey for this year's Red Elephants program for the most part is more accurately depicted by the work of unheralded role players.
And every time adversity reared its head along the way, there's been a player well prepared through the grind of day-to-day practice to step up and thrive.
Gainesville junior offensive lineman Chase England said part of his motivation is a lack of perceived respect from others. He knows the Red Elephants have had their doubters all along the way, which makes such a deep playoff run even more special.
"It's never about the individual glory," said England, who's been part of an offensive line that been tinkered with this year due to injuries. "That's the beauty of playing for Gainesville."
Miller says that the tone for practice during the week is set partly because of the hard work of his scout team, which is predominantly the junior varsity squad and gives the starters the best possible simulation of what the upcoming opponent will throw at them.
Even though scout team members don't see nearly the same amount of playing time on Friday night, they've earned the respect of their more seasoned teammates. Just two years ago, most of Gainesville's current starters were scout team members for its 2009 state finalist squad.
"My job is to have the starters ready to play," said sophomore Neil Pavao, a sophomore defensive back that has only seen varsity time in games against Johnson and Franklin County. "I've played everything in practice from wide receiver, tight end, running back and defensive back."
Of course, injuries have paved the way for new players to show they can make the grade under the lights on Friday night.
Caleb Hayman was just the latest player to make a big impact with his two-touchdown effort at wide receiver last Friday in a 35-21 win against No. 1 Sandy Creek in Gainesville.
He stepped in with junior Justin Cantrell held out of action.
Early in the year, Gainesville also had a void at running back when starter Jay Gaudlock went down with a broken leg at Franklin County.
That job has since been earned by freshman Michael Byrd, who highlighted his season with a 200-yard effort against West Hall late in the regular season.
Miller says everything the Red Elephants have done this season goes back to the theme of playing together.
"When we beat Sandy Creek last week, it just showed what a team can do when you have one common purpose," Miller said.
Pittman remembers the way the team adjusted when he suffered a concussion in the season opener against Class AA's top-ranked Buford.
Now, Gainesville is just two wins away from putting together the perfect finish and first GHSA state championship for football in school history.
Burke County, according to Miller, is quite the formidable opponent. At this point in the postseason, there are no easy games.
"It's going to be a packed house for this one," Miller said. "It's going to be a tremendous opportunity for our team."