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Red Elephants one win away from finals
Gainesville to faceSoutheast Whitfield at 7 p.m. Tuesday
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State soccer playoffs
Boys semifinals

Who: Gainesville vs. Southeast Whitfield
When: 7 tonight
Where: Southeast Whitfield High School, Dalton
Records: No. 2 Gainesville 17-0; No. 4 SE Whitfield 17-4
Tickets: $7
For the first time since 2003, the second-ranked Gainesville boys soccer team is in the semifinals of the Class AAA state playoffs.

After a defeat of No. 8 Perry 2-1 on Friday at City Park, the undefeated Red Elephants are staring down a 7 p.m. appointment with the fourth-ranked Southeast Whitfield Raiders today in Dalton.

The Raiders (17-4) are coming off of a an upset win over then No. 5 Columbus in the quarterfinals, a close game that the Raiders won 1-0.

Champions of Region 6-AAA, the Raiders have amassed 93 goals so far this season, (eight in the playoffs) which means the Red Elephants’ defense is going to be put to the test.

“(The Raiders) like to attack fast,” Gainesville coach Rick Howard said. “They put on a lot of pressure, so we have to stay organized defensively and prevent them from going forward.

“We have to make sure they don’t pull us out of position.”

This won’t be the first time that the Gainesville defense has come up against a high-scoring opponent. Perry’s Karl Chester is known as a high-scoring, smooth-footed forward, and the Red Elephants held him to one goal in the quarterfinals. That goal came in the second half, and only after Gainesville had amassed a two-goal cushion.

That’s not to say that Southeast Whitfield is a purely offensive team. While the Raiders have scored a lot of goals this season, they also held their opponents to 13, proving that they defend as well as they score.

Luckily for the Red Elephants, their roster is full of players who can score in a multitude of ways.

“The fact that we attack from different angles gives us a chance to get a goal from (anywhere),” Howard said.

The Red Elephants have worked all year to keep their attack diversified and unpredictable.

“We don’t want to rely on one person,” Howard said. “We want to depend on everyone as a team.”

In the quarterfinals, Gainesville scored on a cross from freshman Douglass Majia to Yunis Yanes and on a pass from Irving Salgado to Gabriel Osorio. The team put 10 shots on goal in the first half and threatened throughout the game.

So far this season, senior forward Russ Pucket has scored a hat trick on several occasions for Gainesville and, more often than not, multiple players have scored multiple goals in the same game. In the playoffs, the Red Elephants are averaging three goals per game, so getting offensive chances shouldn’t be a concern for Howard.

Also in Gainesville’s favor is the quality of their opponents this season. Red Elephants opponents have a combined 163 victories, to only 119 for Southeast Whitfield’s. Both have played three ranked teams, with Gainesville winning all three and Southeast Whitfield going 2-1. That loss came early in the season against then No. 5 Carrollton, a loss which they avenged in the region championship game.

If the Red Elephants are going to improve to 4-0 against ranked opponents, they will have to do so without their head coach.

Howard was issued a red card in the second round and, per Georgia High School Association regulations, must serve a two-game suspension. Howard served the first of those in the quarterfinals against Perry, but that didn’t keep his team from victory.

While he would love to be on the sideline with his boys, the coach doesn’t think that his absence is going to hurt his team. “As a matter of fact, I wish it wouldn’t be brought up,” Howard said.

Assistant coach Ellie Biviant has taken over coaching duties during the games, and has Howard’s full confidence.

“Ellie could be a head coach anywhere,” Howard said. “We work together, as a unit, so there shouldn’t be any problems.”

Should the Red Elephants be able to grab the victory, they would be in a position to win the second state title in school history. The first came in 1998 when Gainesville was still in Class A/AA.

But Howard isn’t thinking about that just yet.

“I’ll worry about that if we get past Southeast Whitfield,” the coach said. “They are very strong, very prepared and very well-coached.

“I’ll worry about St. Pius X or Woodward (the other two semifinalists) when and if we have the opportunity,” Howard said. “I’m not going to look ahead.”
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