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The countdown is on for the football state championship weekend
Gainesville, 2 other local squads prepping for state title game at Georgia Dome
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For Bruce Miller, the joy derived from Friday night's semifinal win over Whitewater was subdued and short-lived. For the veteran Gainesville coach, a bigger goal lies ahead.

"We enjoyed it for about an hour," Miller said of the Red Elephants' 28-14 victory, which will send the program back to the state title game for the second time in four years. "There's supposed to be 12 hours you give yourself, but we got home at one o'clock (Saturday) morning, and some of our coaches have been up here working since eight o'clock (Saturday morning)."

Gainesville (11-3), which will face Ware County (13-1) for the Class AAAAA championship at 8:30 p.m. Friday, is one of three area teams playing for a state title this weekend. In Class AAA, Buford (11-3) will play St. Pius (12-2) at 5:30 p.m. Friday, and Jefferson (13-1) will take on Calhoun (14-0) in Class AA at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. All games will be played at the Georgia Dome.

For coaches of each team, there's much to be done: gameplans to design, travel arrangements to make, media obligations to satisfy. At least technology is taking some of the load off. In the past, coaches often spent the better part of Saturday driving across the state in order to exchange films with members of the opposing staff. These days, the swap takes only minutes and can be done via the Internet.

By noon Saturday, Miller and his staff had already seen plenty of Ware County, which defeated Northside-Warner Robins, 24-17, in overtime Friday night to reach the state finals for the first time since 2007.

"They're very good on defense," Miller said. "Very quick, very athletic and always where they need to be. Offensively, they take advantage of a lot of opportunities. They're very sound, and if you make a mistake, they'll make you pay."

But the opponent is only part of the coach's concern this week, and Miller said he learned a lot from the Red Elephants' trip the Class AAA state championship game in 2009.

"It helps that you've been there before," Miller said. "Our freshmen have been  there, even though none  of them probably played, they were there. I think that helps. And it helps me that I've been there before."

Miller said he learned last time that aside from the expected distractions of championship week and the nerves that the game itself produces, the venue can present its own unique challenges.

"You only get a little bit of time to warm up in the Dome," Miller said, "and you need to spend a lot time working on catching the ball, because it looks a lot different coming out of that ceiling than it does coming out of the night sky.

"There's also the heat in the Dome." Miller added. "You're used to playing in 40-degree weather and practicing in 50-degree weather, and all of the sudden, it's going to be 72 degrees. It's not something you can get acclimated to in a week, but we do what we can and make sure our kids are hydrated and those kinds of things."

In the end, though, the football is still the same shape and the field is still the same size. And whether it's indoors or out, when the Friday night lights come on, Miller wants his team to do what it's done throughout the playoffs.

"We try to keep our kids in a very normal routine," Miller said. "You try to treat it just as normal as you can. I tell the players, 'you take this game like every other game and let me handle the distractions.'" 

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