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Red Elephants set to take on defending state champs
Gainesville linemen Carlos Figueredo, left, and Kevin Hall run through drills with their teammates as they prepare for their quarterfinal game against Cairo. - photo by Tom Reed

The Blitz: Your source for high school football

Writer's block: Brent and Jon talk with Gainesville and Flowery Branch coaches about Friday's games.

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The memories are still there.

The seven turnovers. The missed opportunities. The chance to go into another team’s stadium with a legitimate chance of winning, only to come up short and walk off the field in defeat.

But for the top-ranked Gainesville Red Elephants (12-0), that’s all last year’s third-round loss to Carver-Columbus is: a memory.

“I haven’t talked about it,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “I’ve talked about that we have a chance to accomplish what we want and how we are going to get to that goal.

“We’re on the verge of that goal,” he added. “Now we have to finish it.”

That goal is a state title, and standing in Gainesville’s way in the Class AAA state quarterfinals tonight is Cairo (9-3), the defending state champions.

“We’re just gonna play it like any other game,” wide receiver Tai-ler Jones said of facing the title holders. “We just need to put more effort into the things we need to work on from last week.”

From an outsider’s perspective, it doesn’t appear that Gainesville has many areas in need of improvement. But last week’s 41-10 win over Dunwoody was closer than the score indicates, and Gainesville even trailed for the first time all season.

The high-powered offense struggled early in the contest, and the Red Elephants needed a perfect defensive performance in the third quarter to turn a 14-3 game into a 41-3 rout.

Miller knows that his offense will face another tough test tonight.

“Because they’re a low-scoring team, it’ll be a challenge for our offense to see how it does against them,” Miller said of the Syrupmakers, who average 17 points per game, the lowest average for any of the remaining teams in the Class AAA playoffs.

Another challenge will be defeating a team from South Georgia, something Gainesville hasn’t done since at least 1948, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association.

“We know how good we are and we know we can stick with the best,” Jones said. “We ignore all that talk about how the South is better than the North.”

Cairo’s coach Tom Fallow also ignores the North-South comparisons.

“I know everybody gets caught up in that, but I don’t,” Fallow said. “The main thing I see when I turn on the tape of Gainesville is plenty of speed, plenty of talent and good coaching.

“It doesn’t matter what part of the state you’re from, if you have that, you’re gonna be successful.”

Last year’s Gainesville team had all those aspects as well, but Carver-Columbus used ball control and hard hits to disrupt the Red Elephants.

At the forefront of those hard hits was quarterback Blake Sims.

“They were good hits, but I still played the way I play,” said Sims, who has 2,560 total yards and has accounted for 41 touchdowns this season. “I’ve played in South Georgia before and it’s no different than any other football.

“I feel like I’m a tough kid and I’m ready for whatever.”

Sims will get a chance to prove that tonight against Cairo, a team that has a perfect 2-0 record against teams from Region 7-AAA.

“We have talked about that,” Miller said, referring to Cairo’s defeat of North Hall in the 2007 semifinals and Flowery Branch in last year’s state title game. “They talk about South Georgia football — and it is good — but this is a chance for us to say that North
Georgia football is not bad either.”

Especially when referring to the Red Elephants, who average 46 points per game on offense and surrender just six points a game on defense. Those numbers are better than Cairo’s last year when the Syrupmakers won the Class AAA state title.

“Even though they were the state champions last year, I feel we’re much better than them,” Sims said. “We’re a better unit and a better all-around team.”

A lot of that has to do with the lessons learned during Gainesville’s third-round loss to Carver nearly a year ago to the day.

“We’re a lot more physical team than we were last year,” Jones said. “This year, we’re laying out the hits more than taking them, so it’ll be an even game as far as that goes.”

Where it’s not an even contest is experience and travel time, as Cairo lost 19 starters from last year’s title team and have to drive more than five hours to play tonight’s game. Despite those factors, Miller knows his team is in for a test.

“They will be a good football team,” he said. “When you’re in Week 13, you’re not a young football team anymore.

“(Cairo) has gotten better and better,” he added. “To see them early in the season and to see them now, it’s almost two different teams.”

Except in terms of the defense, which has been good from the outset.

“They’re probably the quickest defense we’ve faced,” Miller said. “I’m anxious to see how our offense does, and I think we’ll have to adjust to their quickness early on in the game.”

If Gainesville is successful at adjusting, all the memories from last year’s season-ending loss could be gone.

“We just don’t want that disappointment this year,” Sims said. “I’m proud of my team and (tonight) I will give them all that I can.

“I will leave my body on the field so when they look at me after the game they can tell that I’m worn out.”
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