Gainesville had to overcome the loss of about 99 percent of its offense and 3/4 of its defense.
White County had to overcome more than that.
The routes these teams have taken to get to the Region 8-AAA championship game tonight have twisted and turned, but neither team doubted they’d eventually get here.
For the Red Elephants, the obstacles included the loss of All-State phenoms at quarterback and wide receiver, the entire starting offensive line, the leading rusher and seven defensive starters, including the Class AAA defensive player of the year.
Their first game without those leaders of 2009 ended in humbling defeat, a 40-19 loss to Buford that rattled the Red Elephants.
But while Gainesville lost players and a game, White County lost their coach.
Gregg Segraves, who has helmed the program since 2006, resigned in October, following allegations of domestic abuse.
If the distractions that followed proved too much for the Warriors to bear, it would have been understandable.
But the team has made a point of playing the rest of the season with the only varsity football coach any of the players had ever known heavy on their minds.
As Warrior senior Patrick Jones said earlier this week, “he started this thing with our class of seniors four years ago, now we want to finish it.”
Dubbed in the summer as “the Year of the Warrior,” this has been a season White County has pointed to for a breakthrough. The seniors on this year’s team have never known a losing record, but they’ve only been to the playoffs once, as freshmen, and they were eliminated in the first round.
The last two years, the Warriors have finished 6-4 and 7-3, respectively, but ended up on the outside of the postseason picture.
This season, with seven starters back on both sides of the ball, including two-way standout Ashely Lowery, expectations were high.
Expectations were high inside the Gainesville locker room as well, even though most on the outside were a little more skeptical. After all, how could they possibly replace the team’s leading passer, rusher, receiver, and four of the top five tacklers?
Without much of a problem, it turns out.
After the loss to Buford, the Red Elephants began their current eight-game winning streak with a 31-22 win over none other than White County. And in recent weeks, the revamped offense is clicking at a level that rivals the 2009 team, scoring 51 points per game in their last five contests. They’ve done it with a freshman at quarterback and without the benefit of highly touted superstars.
“All 11 players are key players,” senior running back Devon Pierce said.
It’s a sentiment repeated often within the Gainesville program.
“The people I’m playing with now are the people I’ve been playing with since parks and rec,” said senior linebacker A.J. Johnson, one of the few returning starters. “We’ve still got good players on this team. We lost a couple of players, but we came back with another group of players that can play just as well.”
Johnson and Pierce both agreed with their coach Bruce Miller when he said the family atmosphere in the Red Elephants’ locker room has helped the team get to where they are now.
That’s something they’ve got in common with White County, which has galvanized the city of Cleveland during its current seven-game winning streak, the school’s longest since 1981.
“The whole town has just gone crazy,” Jones said. “Friday nights are just unbelievable, the atmosphere is crazy. Everything shuts down in town and everybody goes to the game. All my friends, all my family is there.
Everybody’s friends and family are there.
“And the traffic is terrible.”
It may be worse than ever tonight as caravans of Gainesville faithful snake their away around the square in downtown Cleveland. But regardless of the outcome, fans from both sides should be able to leave the game proud of how far their team has come this season.
Brent Holloway is the sports editor for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesbholloway.