Despite an 0-5 start to the season, first-year Gainesville football coach Heath Webb is remarkably calm with the direction of his youthful bunch.
That’s because the Red Elephants are still in contention to attain all their goals in Region 8-6A, including the opportunity to make the postseason at Gainesville for the 19th consecutive season.
While it might sound odd at first that a winless team is still right in the thick of playoff contention at the midway of the regular season, it’s not when you establish the fact that all five region games that determine playoff qualifiers are in front of the Red Elephants, starting with Friday’s game against Dacula (3-2) at City Park Stadium.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m.
“What’s encouraging to me, is that we’re getting better every week.” said Webb. “The kids here at Gainesville are competitors and want to win each and every week they play.”
Despite there being only six teams in his region and four playoff spots up for grabs, the Red Elephants’ first-year coach knows it will be a grind to keep the program’s playoff streak intact. Webb said his football players leadership committee put at the top of its list of goals to be playing at its best once the region slate begins.
That’s a realistic expectation, too, with only 10 players having game action at the varsity level prior to the 2018 season. With only six returning starters from 2017, the Red Elephants have had to learn through experience.
“This is a super competitive region (8-6A),” said Webb, who will face his former school, Winder-Barrow, in the third game on the region schedule Oct. 19.
Slow starts in the regular season are not reason for being discouraged, while early wins are not reason to celebrate prematurely.
And Webb has seen those signs of growth since dropping heartbreakers against North Forsyth and Lambert in August, then going toe-to-toe with Class 4A’s fifth-ranked Flowery Branch (4-0) before losing 28-19 six days ago.
“Those two early losses hurt, but we were able to go back and evaluate why we lost in order to get better,” said Webb, whose program led Lambert 15-3 going into the fourth quarter, then gave up two late scores and lost.
For everyone in Hall County — and most schools around the state — the region games during the last half of the season is essentially all that matters in the playoff race.
The only exception is the Class A schools that play schools up in classification in hopes of getting a higher seed under a multiplier system and playoff spot in the only divided classification in the state when the playoffs roll around.
Flowery Branch (4-0) and Johnson (4-1) are off to fast starts, but will still face a considerable challenge to get into the playoffs. For the Falcons, they share the same region with No. 1 Blessed Trinity (5-0) and No. 6 Marist (4-1) — both of the 2017 state finalists — in Region 7-4A.
Falcons coach Ben Hall said the primary strategy for each coach was determining how challenging of an early-season schedule to play, knowing those games will have no impact on who makes the field of 32 in the postseason.
Flowery Branch passed both those early tests with wins against tough former region opponents Clarke Central (3-2) and Winder-Barrow (2-3).
In addition to the two top-10 ranked opponents, the Falcons are also looking at a challenge against plucky first-year Denmark (4-1) on the final night of the regular season.
Schools in Region 8-6A will all be off Oct. 12 — a decision Webb said was primarily centered around fall break, — while programs in 8-5A will all have a bye Oct. 19.
“I think it’s good to have a week off before the last couple games,” Johnson coach Jason Roquemore said. “Nobody wants to be off in Week 10 (final night of regular season).”
Opening Region 8-5A play against No. 3 Buford (3-2) on Friday, Johnson is seeking its first playoff berth since 2004.