Friday is going to be a special night and festive atmosphere for Gainesville’s football team, especially its seniors.
The Red Elephants’ (12-1) final home game of the season at City Park Stadium, and, for some, their last home game ever, will be for a berth in the state title game. Very few high school football players can say they had an opportunity like the one Gainesville is facing.
Sixth-ranked Gainesville plays host to No. 4 Burke County (12-1) at 7:30 p.m. on Friday in the state semifinals in Gainesville. The winner will play the Cairo/Peach County winner at 4 p.m. on Dec. 10 for the Class AAA state championship at the Georgia Dome.
The Gainesville crowd for Friday’s game is going to be larger than any this season.
Past players will all come back cheering on the Big Red, hoping to get the program back to the Georgia Dome after just a one-year hiatus. Fans from all the other area schools will also pack into the bleachers tight to watch Gainesville try and take down another higher-ranked opponent.
Playing at home in December wasn’t something guaranteed for Gainesville heading into the playoffs: Winning the Region 8-AAA championship only ensured two home playoff games. After winning in the first two rounds against Dalton and Monroe-Albany, the Red Elephants had to rely on the luck of a coin flip to avoid traveling on Friday.
Now, Gainesville has landed on the right side of the coin two weeks in a row. For the record, I’m not aware of a lucky quarter Gainesville coach Bruce Miller owns for these Saturday morning coin flips, just hours after winning a game the night before.
The Red Elephants also haven’t had an easy road to the state semifinals. Gainesville had to beat top-ranked Sandy Creek, a winner of 41 straight games and consecutive state championships before the Red Elephants won last Friday’s state quarterfinal game in convincing fashion, 35-21.
Playing this far into the playoffs is a result of all the hard work the Red Elephants have put into becoming a champion. They’re also keenly aware that the chance of winning the school’s first football championship in the GHSA is still on the table.
I still haven’t warmed up to having the state semifinal games played on a home field and then championship games at the Georgia Dome. I always really enjoyed the two-day string of semifinal of games on the Atlanta Falcons’ home field and the fact it gave more kids a chance to play in the 71,000-seat stadium in downtown Atlanta.
After the state semifinal weekend, then state championship games were played on a school’s home field.
But my opinion on the subject is neither here nor there.
What I do know is that the entire county should support the Red Elephants, since they’re the only Hall County team battling for the state championship.
I know from past experience that folks in Hall County can put aside rivalries in a hurry to support one of their own under such high stakes.
In 2007, North Hall had great support when it made the state semifinals at the Georgia Dome, as did Flowery Branch in 2008 when it advanced to the state championship game against Cairo.
At this point, one thing that really sticks in my mind about Gainesville is that it just seems like the stars are aligning for something special. I’ve covered all of Gainesville’s home games this season. I went on the road to cover Red Elephants game at Buford and Franklin County.
The Red Elephants have gotten stronger each week as the year went along. Gainesville has a game-changing quarterback in Deshaun Watson, a strong group of wide receivers, a very consistent offensive line and a rock-solid defense.
Now all that’s left for Gainesville is to bring the same passion for football to the field one more Friday night.
Then the Red Elephants can start talking about playing for a state title.