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Last touch of summer: Retooled Gainesville gears up for scrimmage against Winder-Barrow
All 11 programs in Hall County looking to pull the positives from preseason scrimmage
Gainesville High football practice Aug. 11, 2022 at the Bruce Miller Field. - photo by Bill Murphy

Football and sunrises are going to go hand in hand at Gainesville High this season. 

And the day before scrimmaging Winder-Barrow, it was especially important to get things right Thursday, first-year Red Elephants coach Josh Niblett said. 

With darkness beginning to fade into an overcast morning, the Red Elephants were working at a brisk pace as they put the finishing touches on the final session before the preseason game at City Park Stadium. 

And practicing before school wasn’t a one-time deal for the Red Elephants. 

With its new practice field dry, despite rain just hours earlier, Gainesville is getting accustomed to getting practice done before its unified first-period weight training class. 

Weather is certainly one reason to practice early in the day since it’s still summer and the next heatwave could be right around the corner. 

However, going early in the day, Niblett said, is purposeful to get players when they’re still fresh mentally and physically. 

While early-morning conditioning is normal in the summer, the majority of programs go to afternoon practice once school begins. 

“We want to keep it a fast-tempo practice,” Niblett said. “In the morning they’re thinking clearly and not lackadaisical from being in school all day.”

Practicing primarily early in the day is something Niblett started about ‘5 or 6 years ago’ during his super-successful run at Hoover High in Alabama that yielded six state championships. 

Now, working on the field with backdrop of the sunrise is something the Red Elephants are getting accustomed to doing, with some exceptions. 

“Also, we know where players are when we practice before school,” Niblett said. 

All 11 football programs in Hall County get one scrimmage to see where they stand before the regular season opens Aug. 19, except for Cherokee Bluff which opens two days earlier against Kell in the Corky Kell Classic. 

While many got the practice game in a week earlier on Aug. 5, to give two weeks to work out the kinks before the games start counting, the remainder of the programs in Hall County play Friday night. 

On Aug. 5, Flowery Branch built a decisive lead against North Hall through the first half, before giving way to the backups and junior varsity for the final two periods in a 28-27 win. 

First-year Falcons coach Jason Tester likes having the extra days to evaluate scrimmage performances of individual players and to see which groups need the most attention. 

“We stressed establishing the line of scrimmage and playing fast and physical in the preseason game,” Tester said. I felt like we did that.”

The preseason matchup between Flowery Branch and North Hall drew a sizeable crowd at the Brickyard and most fans stayed after the hour-long weather delay, due to lightning in the area, around the planned kickoff time. 

However, the scrimmage for Gainesville will likely draw an even bigger crowd as it’s the next-best-thing to a regular season game for its faithful to see a retooled football program and new coaching staff. 

Niblett said he plans to play his starting unit the first half in the scrimmage and leaves the possibility open for them to also get on the field to open the second half. 

The Red Elephants’ new coach is amped to see what the environment will be like at City Park Stadium. 

All week, it’s been a blitz of social media posts for their fanbase to show up for the preseason game. 

“It’s going to be awesome to get to play at City Park,” Niblett said. “The fans are what make City Park Stadium so special.”

Even though Winder-Barrow is the opponent this week, Gainesville’s coaching staff has put more of an emphasis on getting them ready schematically for Week 1 of the regular season in Atlanta against Marist, the 2020 state champion in Class 4A. 

In the scrimmage for Gainesville, most fans will get their first real look at new starters Jeremiah Telander, a senior middle linebacker who is committed to the University of Tennessee, and seniors wide receivers Darius Cannon and Tre Reece, also both in their first year with the school.

Friday’s preseason schedule

Gainesville vs. Winder-Barrow

Chestatee vs. Union County

West Hall vs. Oglethorpe County

Lakeview Academy vs. Lake Oconee Academy

Lanier Christian vs. Bethlehem Christian

Riverside Military vs. Creekside Christian

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