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Game of the week: Gainesville looks to avoid 0-2 start to season against North Forsyth
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Gainesville High's JD Brooks tries to get past North Hall's Daniel Jackson Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, during the first half of their scrimmage game at The Brickyard.

First-year Gainesville coach Heath Webb is still tinkering with where to put his players to get the best results. It’s all part of the learning curve with a new coach and young talent, as evidenced by the season-opening 42-0 loss at Mary Persons on Aug. 17. 

The first home test will be Friday, facing Class 7A North Forsyth at City Park Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.

“I think the biggest thing is, for us as coaches, is to continue to learn our personnel, who can do what, who needs to move positions, those sort of things,” he said. “So some things that you’re not able to figure out on the practice field that you need some game competition to be able to evaluate, that’s the biggest thing for us, is just finding the strengths and weakness of our players.”

He said the most important changes he has to make in preparation for the game against the Raiders involve personnel switches, and it’s not only about moving around starters on the varsity squad. Webb added that certain players from the JV team could even be called up after big performances in Gainesville’s first JV game last Thursday.

Webb pointed specifically to Ken Hester, a junior varsity running back and safety who could be asked to join the varsity team’s secondary after his strong Week 1 performance.

Another key to this week’s game that Webb thinks could play a role in the outcome is that the Red Elephants will be playing at home rather than on the road. Gainesville had to make a nearly  2 1/2 hour drive to Forsyth last Friday, forcing the players to check out early from school and drastically alter their routines.

“It was just going to an unfamiliar place and just a lot of strange circumstances for a regular season game,” Webb said. “So now it’s just a sense of normalcy. Kids will be able to dress at their own lockers. They’ll be able to go through a full school day. All those things are important, just to stay within the routine.”

But self-improvement from last week is only half of the equation, as Webb and the Red Elephants have a new opponent to prepare for in North Forsyth. Last week, the Raiders lost an 18-16 battle to Cherokee, but Webb said the score is a little misleading. North Forsyth stayed in the game, despite turning the ball over seven times.

“You take away those seven turnovers, and I’m sure they’re going to win that ball game,” he said.

The Raiders ability to remain composed even when the offense was misfiring is a testament to the experience the team has, according to Webb. With 11 seniors on the offensive side of the ball — including all five starters along the offensive line — North Forsyth has one of the most experienced units in the state. 

“The experience factor certainly resides with them,” Webb said.

In order to combat the Raiders experienced offense, Webb said the best thing to do is keep that unit off the field as much as possible, taking care of the football and avoiding turning it over to the Raiders in plus territory as much as possible.

Defensively, Webb said there will be a focus on combatting the ground game. With all seniors along the offensive line, North Forsyth leans heavily on running the football, according to Webb. Strong, consistent tackling will also be crucial to the Red Elephants’ success.

“That was a big issue for us last week, is we were able to get in a position to make plays and just didn’t tackle,” Webb said.

Coming into the year, Webb said he was hoping to use the first few weeks of the season to get to know his personnel so the team is at its best by the start of region play. After a rocky start to the season, the onus is on for Gainesville to find both offensive and defensive units that mesh well if the Red Elephants in 2018 want to extend their 16-year playoff qualification streak. 

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