The Gainesville football team made waves in the Class AAA state playoffs in 2011, its last season in that classification.
Behind the historic season of sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, the Red Elephants ended Sandy Creek’s 41-game winning streak and made it all the way to the state semifinals.
Now, after two weeks of practices this spring, they are looking forward to the opportunity to do even more. But the road won’t be easy.
“The move up in classifications has put an urgency on some things,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “We need to start fast next year. We play a Class AAAAAA team right off the bat, then Buford and then we move right into our region schedule. We need to be good early.”
Miller said that all starts in what he refers to as “Phase 1,” the offseason weight training. Phase 2, spring practice, is nearly in the books.
The coach said that he was happy with his team’s work over its two weeks of practice. He was able to install the basic offense and defense, found some things he would like to experiment with and has found some capable players that will be able to build the team’s depth.
“The biggest thing you can do at this point is to build a strong foundation to head into the summer,” he said.
Right now, part of the foundation he is looking to build is on the offensive and defensive lines, which lost a number of players to graduation.
He said he’s pleased with what he’s seen so far.
“We’ve got some real good people,” Miller said. “Now, we just have to see if they can withstand AAAAA competition.”
And then, of course, there is Watson, a rising junior who is preparing for his third year under center with the team.
The young quarterback, who has already committed to play at Clemson University, put together one of the best statistical seasons in county history in 2011.
And Miller sees nothing but improvement.
“It was the second day of spring practice and he was already checking off at the line,” Miller said. “He’s just continuing to mature and improve his game.”
Gainesville will play its spring game on Monday at the high school, not City Park Stadium, to avoid marking yardage on the field while the girls soccer team is still using it for the state playoffs.
Other coaches around the area were equally pleased with spring practice.
North Hall’s Bob Christmas was most impressed with the improvement of his young players from a year ago.
In 2011, the Trojans suffered a rash of injuries that forced a number of sophomores onto the field. And while it made things difficult last season, Christmas said, it has been beneficial in the long run.
“It’s tough when you’re having to do it,” Christmas said. “But it usually pays dividends the next year.”
Christmas noted the improvement of Zac Little at running back, who will be one of a group of about four players that will try to replace the production of Imani Cross. Cross, a leader on both sides of the ball last season, is graduating and will play football at Nebraska.
“He was a great kid for us both on the field and as a leader,” Christmas said of Cross. “But, overall, the coaches were real pleased with what we saw from the kids this spring.”
Meanwhile, Flowery Branch conducted its first spring under new coach Chris Griffin, who took over for the departing Lee Shaw.
Griffin has been an assistant for 10 years under Shaw, but said there were minor tweaks that he made to fit his personality.
“It’s definitely been different for me,” he said. “This year, I don’t have a specific position that I’m coaching. Its a big change, but it’s a good change.”
While there are changes, like a mostly new staff of coaches, it’s only a little different than the changes they make every year.
“You tweak things every year to fit the personality of the players,” Griffin said. “So, this is only a little bit different than that.”
For Johnson and West Hall, one of the main goals was to rebuild the interest in the program.
Knights coach Paul Friel said he thinks that goal was largely accomplished this spring, as they broke practice with about 75 kids.
“It went real well,” he said. “We’ve got a good number of kids heading into the summer. I think it’s a good sign of progress.”
New West Hall coach Tony Lotti expressed similar sentiments.
One of his main goals was to increase the numbers with the team and take a first step to buidling the program.
“It was great,” he said of spring practice. “What we are trying to do is take a good first step. Everything in football is related to taking a good first step, and I think we accomplished that. We can compete, and that’s what I’ve been trying to instill from the beginning.”
East Hall experienced similar success with numbers in the spring which, coach Bryan Gray said, makes it possible to expand how the team practices.
“You lose some key kids, but then some new key kids show up,” he said. “I think the excitement of last year carried into the spring, and we’ve been able to have by far our most productive and physical practice. We’re usually limited because of depth, but I think we’ve really been able to have some quality teamwork.”
Chestatee’s Stan Luttrell said that one of his main goals in the offseason and spring was to get his players bigger and stronger.
“We did well at the beginning of the season, but then faced some injuries and weren’t able to recover,” he said. “So we’re really focused on getting them bigger and strong so we can avoid those injuries.”