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High school football: How a Week 1 win reinvigorated the Gainesville football team and its fan base
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Gainesville's JD Brooks runs through North Hall's line during a scrimmage between Gainesville High School and North Hall at Bobby Gruhn Field on Friday, Aug. 16, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele

It only took one game for optimism to return to the Gainesville football program. 

A year after the rain-soaked Red Elephants boarded solemn busses on the way back from a 42-0 defeat at the hands of Mary Persons to start the season, Gainesville took down those same Bulldogs 27-21 inside City Park Stadium last Friday. One game into the season, the Red Elephants were suddenly already halfway to their win total from last year.

Later that night, Gaineseville defensive end Makius Scott made the team’s return to prominence official on social media.

“Gainesville Football is Back!” he Tweeted.

The rest of the community was quick to take notice. 

Gainesville coach Heath Webb said the past few days have returned an onslaught of texts, phone calls and e-mails congratulating him on the progress his team has made since the end of last season. 

Webb was expecting the pressure to be high the moment he accepted the head coaching job for the Red Elephants. But he also knew the praise in success would be just as strong as the scrutiny in failure, and Gainesville proved that to him this weekend. 

“It’s been really cool to witness just the support and the love that this community has for the program,” he said.

That support extends beyond the coaching staff, too. 

Junior Ethan Reeves, who plays tight end and defensive line for the Red Elephants, said things were different for he and his teammates when they returned to school on Monday. 

“Everybody’s talking about it,” he said of the team’s unexpected win on Friday. “Everybody’s wishing us luck for the rest of the season.“

Reeves called Gainesville’s opening night victory “a great experience.” He remembers looking to the stands as the score went final and watching the fans jumping and yelling in the bleachers. 

It was a rare sight for the 2018 season, but this year Reeves plans on helping to make it more common.

“It was awesome,” he said.

Gainesville’s surprising victory was enough to attract the attention of the rest of the state as well. On Saturday, the team was announced as a contender for High 5 Sports’ Team of the Week by an Atlanta television station. The Red Elephants locked up the recognition — decided by an online poll — on Tuesday. 

Webb said he’s coached teams that have won the award on a couple of occasions, but the notoriety it brings to a program never gets old. 

“It’s a fun deal,” he said. “It’s an exciting thing.”

And while fan support and statewide recognition are major plusses to Gainesville’s strong start to the year, Webb said the belief Friday’s win built in the minds of his players was the most important reward the Red Elephants took out of Week 1. 

After a long summer, nothing beats starting out the fall on a high note.

“They worked hard to change the culture of this program,” Webb said. “In addition to that, they’ve worked hard to get bigger, faster and stronger. It gives them validation for all that hard work.”

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