By beating West Hall on Friday night 40-14 in Oakwood, the Red Elephants also ended their 2007 regular season the same way they have in the past seven regular seasons, with a playoff game on the schedule.
Gainesville clinched the second playoff spot in Region 7B-AAA with the win over the Spartans, recovering from a three-game skid in the middle of the season to finish the regular season with a three-game winning streak.
Even after the Red Elephants’ losses to North Hall, Chestatee and Flowery Branch, at least one of their seniors wasn’t worried.
"It just wasn’t possible," senior receiver Tyler Adetona said. "Gainesville’s going to the playoffs."
Gainesville (7-3, 3-1 7B-AAA) has not missed the playoffs since 1999, when the Red Elephants went 2-8.
"We just had to come together and focus," senior quarterback Justin Fordham said of possibly missing the playoffs. "We’ve been in all the games, we just need to learn how to finish them."
Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller, heading into his sixth straight postseason, said a lot had to change to get to this point.
"It’s been a struggle at certain points of year," he said. "To see our kids play hard and bounce back, it feels good. ... They kept fighting and that is a tribute to our players and our coaches."
Each improvement made since the three-game losing streak was on display Friday night against West Hall (2-7, 1-2).
"They are hard to contain," West Hall coach Mike Newton said.
The Red Elephants broke free of the Spartans’ containment with some impressive offensive numbers.
Hanging on to a 10-7 lead after the first quarter, the Red Elephant offense cranked up a 30-7 lead by halftime.
Fordham wore out his arm in the first half, completing 23 of 36 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns in the first two quarters alone.
Even Fordham, who is used to putting up some big numbers, was surprised by those statistics.
"Whoa," he said. "I had no idea. In the first half?"
He finished with 28 completions and 390 yards passing. Almost half of his passes went to senior Gerald Ford, who had 211 yards and two touchdowns on 13 catches.
"Justin understands what we are doing with the ball," Miller said. "He’s gotten the ball to his play makers."
Senior running back Kendrick Harris added a hint of offensive balance with 137 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.
Some of those gaudy numbers might not be possible were it not for one of the most improved units on the team, the offensive line.
The starting five did not give up a single sack, allowed only one play for negative yards and kept a charging West Hall defense away from the quarterback.
"Nobody gave them a chance in the beginning of the year but I wouldn’t trade them for anybody," Fordham said. "I wouldn’t trade them for anybody. They work together as a team really well up there."
Gainesville’s defense, which has also shown improvement since the three-game skid, had to make quick adjustments early to keep the team’s playoff hopes alive.
The Spartans came out with a bruising running attack, led by junior running back Marquise Stephens, who had 133 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter.
"I think our defense, a couple of times early, was over pursuing him," Miller said.
After his stellar first quarter, Stephens ran the ball once in the second quarter.
"On first down, we were getting minus yardage, so I had to go to something else," Newton said. "It’s not like I changed things up. It’s just that our first down indicated that we had to change things."
The Red Elephants recovered two West Hall fumbles in the first half. One fumble ended a potential scoring drive and the other gave Gainesville the ball on the Spartans’ 35-yard line.
The Spartans also failed to convert on a fourth-and-inches that could have extended a drive into Gainesville territory.
"I felt like we gave them 21 points in the first half," Newton said. "We’ve just got to stop turning the ball over."
Gainesville held the Spartans scoreless for 36 minutes, 31 seconds between Stephens’ 61-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and his 12-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
The Red Elephants forced five three-and-outs.
"Our defense has gotten so much better," Fordham said.
Gainesville gets a much-needed week off next week to heal wounds and prepare for the playoffs.
"I get time to get better," said an excited Adetona, who is nursing an ankle injury.
Fordham, Adetona and Miller agreed that Gainesville is playing as well as it has all season. Off-weeks sometimes slow down rolling teams.
Miller doesn’t care.
"We need the week off," Miller said with a deep breath.