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From 'eating wings to eating W's': Gainesville rejuvenated and ready for state football playoffs
Red Elephants point to team bonding activities as the secret to team's turnaround from 0-7 start
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Gainesville's Quintavious Hayes, left, and Lenny Chatman celebrate after scoring a touchdown during a game against Winder-Barrow at City Park Stadium on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. - photo by Austin Steele

It’s never easy to keep morale high during a losing streak. For the Gainesville High football team, the secret was in the sauce — the wing sauce, that is. 

The Red Elephants opened the season with seven-straight losses, but lineman Jordan Williams said team bonding events kept the players close through the tough stretch of games. One of the team’s favorite activities, win or lose, is visiting Wild Wing Café to take advantage of the restaurant’s all-you-can eat wing buffet. 

Like most aspects of the players’ lives, the trips quickly turned into competitions. So who among the players can put down the most chicken wings in one sitting?

“It’s between me or AJ [Toliver]” Williams said. “Sometimes we team up, and whichever team loses has to pay the tip for everybody.”

It wasn’t long before the Red Elephants went from eating wings to eating W’s. 

Following a Week 9 bye, Gainesville rattled off a pair of victories against Winder-Barrow and Apalachee before narrowly losing to Lanier on the road, 6-2. After giving up at least 16 points in each of the first seven games of the year, the Red Elephants allowed only 6.5 points per game over the final three.

The team’s 2-3 region record was just good enough for it to sneak into the playoffs as a No. 4 seed, extending the program’s streak to 19 consecutive postseason appearances. Gainesville (2-8) will face top-seeded Creekside (7-3) on the road Friday night in the first round. 

“That off week after being 0-7 was important, because the changes that we made at that point made us a better football team,” Gainesville coach Heath Webb said. “And obviously, it kind of picked up from there.”

Webb said switching from a base four-man front to a base three-man front helped to make Gainesville’s defensive line a dominant force in stopping the run. In addition to that, a couple of personnel tweaks and an increased emphasis on designing running plays for athletic quarterback Gionni Williams contributed to the consistency of the Gainesville offense.

Once the team won its first game, things started to snowball from there, according to Webb. 

“It definitely had a wonderful impact on our practice, just form the sense of the guys seeing that the process is taking hold, and just the relief, get the monkey off their back so to speak,” he said.

After that first win, Williams said it became much easier to work hard during the week. After a dreary stretch of losses, practice started to be more enjoyable and physical for Williams and other members of the team. 

“That’s what kept us going all through practice, and that started translating on the field on Friday,” he said.

Now with a little more spring in their step following a successful final month of the season, the Red Elephants turn their attention to Creekside, in an effort to extend their season past the round one of the playoffs for the first time since 2015. 

It’s a team that has a penchant for playing mistake-free football, according to Webb.

“They don’t turn it over,” he said. “The quarterback’s a solid football player. He doesn’t throw the ball up for grabs. All of his throws are calculated.”

The Seminole’s combine their clean style of offense with a hyper-aggressive defense, and both Webb and Williams emphasized the important role the Gainesville offensive line will have to play in the contest. 

Williams said Creekside often brings all-out blitzes, opening up the potential for the Red Elephants to hit on explosive plays if they can get the ball out quickly. Any confusion among the team’s trench players could be catastrophic. 

“Every offensive linemen, or every other person we have back there helping block, we have to block every single person, because they blitz everybody,” Williams said. “So if one dude messes up, that could easily mess up the whole play.”

Defensively, Gainesville will focus on stopping the run and forcing Creekside to beat them through the air. Webb — who believes his defensive line stacks up well against just about any other unit in the classification — said the onus will be on the secondary to keep the score low. In his words, “the ball is going to be in the air a good bit.”

Webb said that if his squad is going to have a shot at advancing, the Red Elephants must avoid careless turnovers and milk time of possession whenever they have the ball. After coming away with zero points on two drives inside of Lanier’s 20-yard line last week in a four-point loss, capitalizing whenever they have chances will be hugely important for the Red Elephants.

“If we’re going to beat them, we’ve got to take care of the football, because they are going to take care of the football, and we’re going to have to be able to make one-on-one plays,” Webb said. “That’s going to be the key.”

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