Gainesville High senior Josh Jackson remembers the last time he played in a third-round playoff game like it was yesterday.
As a freshman in 2005, Jackson was a member of the Red Elephants’ team that won their first two playoff games only to lose 28-20 to LaGrange in the quarterfinals. The loss hurt, and it’s something he nor his fellow seniors have ever been able to forget.
"We didn’t execute like we should have," Jackson said. "It hurt a lot and I really want to feel what it’s like to play in the fourth round, and I really want to feel what it’s like to play for a state championship."
Although disappointing, the loss on the night of Nov. 18, 2005 may prove to be quite the motivator.
"I felt bad because I saw some of the leaders on our team crying and I never saw them like that before," linebacker Brock Boleman said. "They were broken, and I don’t want that to be us."
For the past two seasons Gainesville (12-0) hasn’t had the opportunity to avenge that third-round loss, but tonight it will, as the Red Elephants take the field against Carver-Columbus, the defending state champions.
"We know they’re the defending state champions so we’re gonna work two times harder since we’re trying to get to that level," safety Xavier Ervin said. "To be the best, you gotta beat the best."
Hard work is the main constant in the Red Elephants’ last deep playoff run since reaching the semifinals in 2002. They’ve reached the playoffs every year, and now that they are finally back in the quarterfinals, the loss three years ago is providing a little momentum for Class AAAA’s fourth-ranked team.
"Lately it’s been playing on my mind a lot because we’re in the same spot," defensive lineman Shammond Stringer said. "(That loss) has propelled me to work harder."
Not only are the Red Elephants in the same position, but that 2005 team is eerily similar to this year’s.
This year was the first time since 2005 that Gainesville won the Region 7-AAA championship. In 2005, Gainesville hosted Oconee County in Round 1 and beat the Warriors 19-14. This year’s first-round opponent? Oconee County, which Gainesville beat 49-21. In 2005, Gainesville played host to the first two rounds of the playoffs and won both games, just like this year.
"The 2005 team reminds me of this bunch a lot," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. "But this bunch might be a little more talented."
And unlike the 2005 team, this year’s team must go on the road for its quarterfinal game.
With both Gainesville and Carver being No. 1 seeds, the two schools participated in a coin toss last Saturday to determine which school would play host to tonight’s game. Gainesville called "tails," the coin came up "heads."
"My first 10 seconds I was disappointed," Miller said of having to play an away game for the first time since Halloween. "But after I thought about it I realized we’re still playing, so who cares?"
His team, especially the ones that were on the 2005 team, certainly don’t.
"I hoped we’d get back here, and we’re going to fight for it," tight end Nick Johnson said.
The fight will be a tough one, as Carver boasts what Miller called the "fastest team" they’ve seen all year.
"Last week we saw some speed, but this week we’re really going to see some speed," said Miller, referring to the speed of a Cartersville team Gainesville beat 42-28 in Round 2. "Carver’s got a lot of speed, they can go the distance on one snap."
Not only will Gainesville have to contain Carver’s speed on offense, but it will have to find a way to score on the Tigers’ defense, which offensive coordinator Todd Wofford called "the biggest front seven" Gainesville has played.
Luckily for Gainesville, that front seven is playing without one of the top players in the state in linebacker Jarvis Jones. Jones (6-foot-3, 226), who is a U.S. Army All-American, has a broken thumb and will miss the rest of the postseason. While Jones will not play, Gainesville will still have to plan for linebacker LeRon Furr, who was selected to play in the Offense-Defense Bowl on Jan. 2 in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Despite the intimidating defense, Miller has no plans in changing his game plan.
"It’s like the old saying says, ‘We’re gonna dance with what brought us,’" he said. "It’s gotten us this far."
While the junior-laden offense (specifically quarterback Blake Sims, wide receiver Tai-ler Jones and running back Teryan Rucker) has certainly helped the Red Elephants get back to the quarterfinals, Miller knows that without the group of guys from that 2005 team, this year’s squad may not still be playing.
"They give you so much leadership," Miller said of his seniors. "You can say what you want, but the younger guys always go to the seniors and we’ve had excellent senior leadership this year."
The main vocal leader is center Nick Williams, who did not dwell on the loss three years ago, but still remembers how it felt when he finished his freshman year three wins shy of a state title.
"I think about it every night and every morning when I get up," Williams said.
With a win tonight, Williams and the rest of the seniors from that 2005 team won’t have to think about that loss anymore.