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Gainesville basketball looks to continue school's run of success
Gainesville High’s Caleb Hayman, bottom, collides with Effingham County’s Ryan Wilkens, and teammate Deshaun Watson under the basket during the Red Elephants’ semi-finals win over Effingham Co. at Kennesaw State University on Saturday.

State basketball championship


Gainesville boys vs. Miller Grove

Where: Macon Centreplex

When: 8:45 p.m. Friday

Cost: $10

For Gainesville senior Caleb Hayman, the transition from football to basketball wasn’t too tough.

On the field, his role involved leaping up to snare touchdown passes. On the court, he excels at leaping up to grab rebounds.

In his final high school season, he’s got a chance to win a championship doing both.

“The excitement that I have for winning a state championship in football, it makes me want that again, that warm feeling in my belly,” he said. “I want that again.”

Hayman, a 6-foot-2 wide receiver committed to play football at South Alabama, was key in Gainesville’s first state football championship win in December, a 49-13 blowout of Ware County in the Georgia Dome, catching 11 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns.

While his contributions on the basketball court as a forward this postseason haven’t been as flashy, they’ve been just about as important. And that can be said for just about every player on the Red Elephants’ 14-man roster, which includes potentially four starters from the football team, and others, like Hayman, who come off the bench.

“Multi-sport athletes are getting more uncommon, and we’re blessed to have a few of those,” Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said. “They’ve been playing together so long as a group, and they’ve had success as a group in just about anything they’ve done.”

That’s not to discount the contributions from the players on the team who focus solely on basketball — including leading scorer Shaquan Cantrell, sharpshooter Luke Moore and key defender Jikeese Ruff — but the additions of the football players made the team not just whole, but incredibly deep. It’s a key reason the Red Elephants are (23-9) playing four-time defending state champs Miller Grove (29-3) in the Class AAAAA state championship game at 8:45 p.m. Friday night at the Macon Centreplex.

For instance, Hayman backs up Chase England, the center during football season. Fellow wide receiver Tray Harrison runs the point, star quarterback Deshaun Watson is the No. 2 scoring option at shooting guard and breakthrough sophomore wide receiver Rodney Lackey is a key guard off the bench.

“I think it’s just great to show (two-sport athletes). In this day and time everybody wants to concentrate on one sport,” Gainesville athletic director Wayne Vickery said. “You don’t have very many three-sport athletes anymore, but you’ve got a great many two-sport athletes.”

England, a 6-foot-3 forward, was playing a Lanierland basketball tournament game in Gainesville against Chestatee less than 24 hours after the state championship game win in Atlanta.

“They were struggling and I felt I needed to be out there,” he said. “I’m a competitor. It was great to win state, but it was time to move on to the next commitment.”

After an 0-4 start, Gainesville beat Chestatee 81-69 that night for its first win.

The Red Elephants lost the next two games to fall to 1-6 as football players continued to get into basketball shape, but after that the team seemed to click, winning 18 of its final 21 games in the regular season, starting with a 65-57 win over West Hall in the Lanierland third-place game.

Gainesville has won 15 straight heading into the state championship game.

“I feel like we clicked once we got the feel of basketball,” said Hayman, who had tried to get in some pick-up games on Sundays but had focused on football throughout the fall.

The late start for the football players also came with an added benefit; depth. Even if they didn’t get a lot of wins, players who may not have seen too much of the court were thrust into the starting lineup early on, which has translated into a real edge in depth for Big Red.

“I’m extremely proud of our guys who played early,” Cottrell said.

One of those players, Cantrell, noted that, even with how packed the schedules were, the football players still made time to get to the gym to shoot and keep from getting too rusty.

“Even during the football season, they still came to the gym during free time to play,” he said. “Plus, we’ve been playing together since middle school.”

Now the familiar group has a chance to continue on Gainesville’s string of sports successes. Last year the baseball and girls soccer teams made the state semifinals, the boys soccer team reached the state finals, and both golf teams won it all. In the fall, the volleyball team made a run at state along with football’s success, and swimmer Colin Monaghan turned in a stellar swimming season.

In the just-begun spring season, baseball is once again a favorite to contend for a state title, both soccer teams are dangerous and both golf teams enter as favorites.

But the boys basketball team has the stage Friday night.

“The only thing acceptable is winning a state championship around here,” England said. “It’s been an awesome year so far, so hopefully that continues.”

His backup, Hayman, just wants to get that feeling again. And, judging by his performance on the big stage during football season, the senior, just like the team has a whole, can’t be counted out.

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