There's an old cliche in sports that says "there is no ‘I' in team." And on Friday night at City Park, the Gainesville Red Elephants proved that cliche to be true.
The offense didn't perform up to its usual standards, and at times it looked like the stout defense that dominated teams throughout the season was overmatched by Flowery Branch.
But the offense didn't hang its heads, and the defense stepped up when it mattered the most, and in doing so helped Gainesville finish off a perfect 10-0 season and win the Region 7-AAA championship.
"Everybody played good today. Everybody helped win this game," said an emotional Blake Sims, the junior quarterback who led the Red Elephants on three scoring drives in the fourth quarter. "I give this game to everybody else. The offense, the defense, everybody played well."
And they needed to in order to do something that this Red Elephant team hasn't had to do all year: Come from behind and win a game.
"They're a bunch of fighters and they hung in there together," Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. "Unity is the key word for us this year. These guys don't care who gets the credit, they just play hard."
After all, that is what champions do.
Earlier this week the unsung heroes of both teams were featured in a story in The Times. At the time it was just an article to let everyone know that there are other players on each of the two schools besides the ones you read about on a weekly basis. But the truth of the matter is, if it wasn't for those nonheadline-grabbers on Friday night, Gainesville would not be celebrating its 23rd region championship.
A.J. Johnson had a team-high 13 tackles and the critical interception in the fourth quarter that halted a Flowery Branch drive. Josh Jackson had 10 tackles, with the majority of them coming at or around the line of scrimmage. Phillip Gaines, Tevin Yarbrough and Brock Boleman all had an impact on defense for Gainesville.
But they weren't alone.
The offensive line allowed Sims to stay on his feet the majority of the night. They pass blocked, they run blocked, and on a Sims' scramble in the first quarter, left guard Taylor Stowe blocked an oncoming Daniel Drummond so hard that it sent him to the sidelines.
That's how much Gainesville wanted this championship, and the players knew that it would take everyone on the roster in order to make it happen.
"It's not about one player, it's a team effort," said wide receiver T.J. Jones, whose biggest plays Friday were not those that fill out a stat sheet. His 52-yard punt out of his own end zone prevented Flowery Branch from capitalizing on a sack of Sims at the 1-yard line, and it was his knockdown of a pass late in the fourth quarter that prevented the Falcons from scoring a touchdown.
"I'm part of the team," Jones said. "Anything I can do to help the team win is fine with me."
That's the attitude of a championship team.
Sure the Red Elephants put up gaudy numbers this season and really did not play a close game until Friday night, but if you look past all the stats and all the high-scoring affairs you will see a team defined by its closeness.
They've practiced together since spring with a goal of winning a region championship. Still, people doubted them and said that they didn't have what it took to be a great team.
"We worked our fannies off all summer and these guys just wouldn't be denied," Miller said. "Everybody has been doubting them all year long."
Those doubters couldn't have been more wrong.
On Friday, Gainesville proved that this year was in fact its year. From the 35-0 shutout of Chestatee in the season's first game to Friday night's 28-13 region-clinching win over Flowery Branch, the Red Elephants have shown that they are the best team in the area.
"People have been doubting us all year, and we've just been taking it to the head," Sims said. "We showed them that we were the true team around here."
The key word is team, because without a true team effort, the outcome of Friday's game at City Park would have been completely different.