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Murphy: Gainesville hoists region trophy with pride
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Devan Stringer had every reason to smile after Gainesville claimed the Region 8-AAAAA title on its own home field Friday.
Holding firm to the championship trophy and holding it out for teammates and fans to see, the Red Elephants’ senior linebacker knew the sacrifice that went into reclaiming what was always theirs his freshman and sophomore season.

It wasn’t easy as third-ranked Gainesville had to hold off a surging Flowery Branch in the fourth quarter, despite the world-class effort of Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson, who went over 12,000 career passing yards on a long third-quarter touchdown pass.

Stringer wanted all his teammates to remember the amount of work over the course of the regular season to earning the top spot to the Class AAAAA playoffs.

It was just 364 days prior to Friday that the Red Elephants lost a gut-wrenching game to the same Falcons. And even with the state championship from last season, getting back to the top spot in the region was every bit the conversation that senior for the Big Red.

“This feels amazing, winning region,” said Stringer, who will play next year at Appalachian State. “When we didn’t win region last year, it hurt. So to come back out here and get it back has been what we’ve worked for all season.”

That’s also a sign of great maturity. Despite all the hype and buzz that surrounds Gainesville for so many well-deserving reasons, Gainesville didn’t want to neglect the importance of winning the biggest game of the regular season. Despite letting Flowery Branch rally to as close as 10 points in the fourth quarter, the Elephants didn’t get overwhelmed and closed out a win where so many memories have been made by its 2013 seniors.

And despite an early-season loss to the top team in Class AAA, Buford, Gainesville will open the playoffs at home Friday against M.L. King.

Watson felt the same sense of joy after a game with more than 200 yards of both rushing and passing yards. He never overlooked the importance of winning the region championship and it showed with instinctive plays that only a player of Watson’s elite talent could achieve.

“It’s very big for us to be able to win the region championship,” said Watson, still winded after a tough, physical battle.

Stringer, Watson and Co. were able to feed off the massive crowd that typically accompanies games against Flowery Branch from beginning to end. The Red Elephants rode the wave of Watson’s big plays and an interception return by Stringer for a touchdown to a big early lead, while also managing to weather a valiant effort by the Falcons in the final quarter to bring a tight finish to this 100-point battle of two squads who both have a great shot of making long playoff runs.

Flowery Branch players had nothing at all to hang their head about, despite coming just short in attempting to keep the Region 8-AAAAA trophy in South Hall. The Falcons shook off an 0-2 start the regular season with seven straight region victories. Playing strong against the defending Class AAAAA state champs is proof positive that Flowery Branch will fare well in the postseason.

But this night belonged to Gainesville. The Red Elephants have a signal-caller the likes will never be seen again in Hall County, and a supporting cast that proves to be the complete package.