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Gainesville eager for long-awaited football home opener against Winder-Barrow
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Friday's games

North Hall at West Hall

Chestatee at Pepperell

Commerce at Jefferson

Banks County vs. East Jackson

Flowery Branch at Lanier

Gainesville vs. Winder-Barrow

Johnson at Lumpkin County

Riverside Military at Hapeville Charter

Habersham Central vs. South Forsyth

Jackson County at Rabun County

Lakeview Academy at Towns County

Union County vs. Andrews (N.C.)

White County vs. Pace Academy

Dawson County at Heritage-Ringgold

For Gainesville football coach Bruce Miller, it feels like it’s been ages since his program had the opportunity to play on its home field at City Park Stadium. That long wait finally comes to an end Friday night, when the Red Elephants (0-1) open Region 8-AAAAA play against Winder-Barrow (1-1, 1-0 Region 8-AAAAA) in Gainesville.

The span between games for the Red Elephants in Gainesville is 9 1/2 months to be exact, since a 42-28 win against Mundy’s Mill in the 2013 Class AAAAA state quarterfinals. The home opener for Gainesville is important for two reasons:

it gives the team a chance to shake off the nasty feeling that came with a 39-0 loss to Class AAAAAA powerhouse Grayson in the opener two weeks ago, along with a chance to get started on the right foot in region play.

“It feels like forever since we’ve been able to play at City Park,” said Miller, who is in his 13th season coaching the Red Elephants. “I drive by City Park all the time and think to myself, ‘I know we play here, but it feels like it’s been forever.’”

Of course, losing an early game does not mean the end of the world for the Red Elephants, who have never had a losing season under Miller.

Last year, Gainesville lost in Week 2 against Buford before going on an 11-game winning streak and playing in the state semifinals against Tucker.

In 2012, Gainesville dropped its opener against West Forsyth before steamrolling through the postseason and winning the Class AAAAA state championship. And in 2011, Gainesville lost to Buford in the opener and went on to win 12 straight.

For Miller, playing an opponent like Class AAAAAA’s fifth-ranked Grayson (2-0) was a valuable measuring stick for where the program stands and glaring areas that needed improvement with two weeks afterward to prepare for the region opener. “Anytime you play a team that is just better than you are, like Grayson, it can only help to make you better too,” said Miller. “The biggest thing we had to work on was just blocking and tackling better.”

Miller said Gainesville injuries at key positions for the Grayson game forced many inexperienced players onto the field.

Even though Friday’s opponent, Winder-Barrow, has struggled for many seasons, they’ve made strides to improve.

The Bulldoggs were led by junior running back CeCe Green’s 241 rushing yards in a 26-20 region win against Apalachee last Friday. Winder-Barrow is under the leadership of first-year coach Heath Webb, who spent 2007-2011 as North Paulding’s coach.

“Winder-Barrow is better than they’ve been in the past,” Miller said. “They have a new coaching staff, and trying to build some enthusiasm for the program.”

Since playing in the same region in 2012, Gainesville has won the past two meetings against Winder-Barrow 69-0 and 68-0, respectively.

However, this time around, record-setting quarterback Deshaun Watson will not be throwing passes for Gainesville.

Two years ago, Watson, who is playing as a freshman for Clemson University, had one of many memorable outings, completing all 18 passes for 350 yards against the Bulldoggs.

Now under center for the Red Elephants is senior Mikey Gonzalez, who played regularly behind Watson for three seasons. In his first career start, Gonzalez threw for 142 yards against a stubborn Rams defense.

Gainesville should have more healthy bodies than in the opener. Defensive back Chris Lyles and running back Michael Byrd were held out due to concussions. However, senior defensive back Lewis Cousins will miss another game with a broken foot, ahead of a potential return against Apalachee on Sept. 19.

Winder-Barrow is trying to break a streak of 11 seasons without a winning record.

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