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Red Elephants remained poised despite the hype
Gainesville High senior Nick Johnson shoots over a host of Flowery Branch players during the Region 7-AAA semifinals earlier this season.
Gainesville Red Elephants

Coach: Todd Cottrell

Record: 21-8

Key players: G George Manomano (6-2 Sr.); G Blake Sims (6-1 Jr.); F Nick Johnson (6-4 Sr.).

Outlook: This has to be exactly what Gainesville had in mind when they brought in Cottrell to replace legendary coach Jerry Davis nearly a year ago. In their first year under the new coach, the Red Elephants have advanced to the final four for the first time since 2002.

The Region 7-AAA champs have done it with balanced scoring, smothering defense and plenty of depth off the bench.

Gainesville hasn’t lost in more than a month, and during its three state playoff wins, they’ve held opponents to less than 43 points per game.

Gainesville typically gets scoring from a number of sources, but Sims has had the hot hand lately, scoring 19 points twice last week in wins over Druid Hills and Cedartown. Manomano leads the team with 17.3 points per game, while 6-foot-4 senior forward Juwon Jeffries adds 8.8 per game.

Sims and Manomano also thrive on pressuring opponents’ ballhandlers, combining to swipe more than five steals per game.

Johnson and his younger brother A.J. Johnson, a 6-3 sophomore forward, provide defense and hustle under the basket. Nick Johnson scores 7.8 points per game and is second on the team with 5.4 rebounds per contest, while A.J. Johnson leads the team with 7.6 rebounds per game.
With the exception of playing in the state semifinals for the first time since 2002, the intensified media coverage, and the decorations around every corner reminding them to “Take State,” the week hasn’t really been that different for the Gainesville High boys’ basketball team.

Well, there’s also the fact that they practiced in Stegeman Coliseum on Wednesday and Thursday.

“Our approach to this game has been no different. We are preparing just like we did for Cedartown, Druid Hills, Eastside and West Hall,” Gainesville coach Todd Cottrell said. “The kids have been great and have handled all the stuff going on extremely well.

“They’ve just done a really great job on what has been a fantastic journey.”

The end of that journey begins tonight when Gainesville (21-8) takes on Westover for a berth in the Class AAA state championship.

It goes without saying that not a player on Gainesville’s roster has experienced the spectacle that is that state tournament in Macon, but neither has Cottrell.

Luckily, he’s surrounded by coaches who have.

“Manson Hill has been big in telling me what to expect,” Cottrell said of Gainesville girls’ coach Manson Hill, who has taken six of his Lady Red Elephant teams to the state semifinals and won four state titles. “Also, Joe Dix, Seth Vining, my brother, they’ve all given me great advice on just some of the little things you might forget when you get down there.

“That’s part of the coaching fun, working with people who want to help you and want the best for you. There’s a lot of good people in this area.”

It’s clear that Cottrell and his team have done as much preparation as possible for the experience, but they’ve also prepared for Westover.

It is, of course, the game that matters most.

“(Westover) is very athletic and tenacious defensively,” Cottrell said. “They play intense full-court and half-court defense and will switch things up throughout the game to try and throw us off.

“They are also bigger on the perimeter than we’re used to seeing around here.”

The four keys defensively for Gainesville are the Patriots’ leading scorers: point guard Dontreal Hicks (5-feet-10), shooting guard Greg Green (5-10), shooting guard Kenji Breedlove (6-1) and small forward Brandon Benton (6-4).

“They’re like clones of each other,” Cottrell said. “They are interchangeable and it makes it really hard to get a beat on them.”
Westover plays a run-and-gun style and will go to the bench often, playing upwards of 11 players.

“Our bench is going to be important (tonight) and will have to give us solid minutes because the way they play, we’ll need frequent breaks,” Cottrell said.

Working in the Red Elephants favor is not only the fact that they matchup size-wise with Westover, but that the Gainesville roster boasts a crop of seasoned athletes used to big games.

“We have football players who have played in, and done well in the spotlight,” said Cottrell regarding A.J. and Nick Johnson, Brock Boleman, Juwon Jeffries and point guard and second-leading scorer Blake Sims.

“Our kids love the big games and relish the big stage, they can’t wait.”

Throw in the no-fear scoring capabilities of senior leading scorer George Manomano and Gainesville has what it takes to make it to Saturday’s state championship game.

“Westover is well-coached and has great tradition,” Cottrell said. “But we have the desire to continue the legacy started by Jerry Davis and continued by these kids.”
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