The long journey home
It was pretty obvious that Friday’s Region 8-AAA title victory for Gainesville was especially sweet. Not many people were going to bet money when the season started that the Red Elephants would be the ones hoisting the region title trophy like they did.
Of course, coaches aren’t going to stick their neck out and say one team’s region title carries more meaning than another. That could be interpreted by some as an affront to another team that came before.
Still, I could sense that extra sense of satisfaction from Gainesville’s seniors that were the ones rejoicing in the program’s third consecutive region title and knowing the playoffs begin Friday at City Park. The Red Elephants open against Haralson County (3-7) in the Class AAA playoffs.
These are the same players that were only used in mop-up duty, with the exception of a few key players on defense, when the Red Elephants ran all the way to the state finals last year. Now, this group of former backups are on pace to see if they can equal, or better, what the 2009 Gainesville program accomplished.
The main components that have permitted Gainesville to keep the top spot in this year’s new region are a defense that can slow the run and pass game, depth at running back, a great offensive line and a remarkably mature freshman quarterback, Deshaun Watson.
While most people first see Gainesville’s star linebacker, A.J. Johnson, he also has ample talent surrounding him on defense with the likes of Mantevius Rucker, Tim Rucker, Thomas Niles and Ryan Snelling. The Red
Elephants allowed a touchdown on the first drive against White County in the region title game, then completely shut the Warriors down, thanks in large part to an interception by sophomore Fred Payne late in the fourth quarter.
The biggest surprise for the Red Elephants has to be the play of Watson. He’s remarkably headstrong for his age and doesn’t make the mistakes a rookie would be expected. His only true blunder in the region championship was an interception deep in Gainesville territory, but more than made up for it with a pair of touchdown throws to Michael Lorentz.
Of course, you also can’t neglect the element that coaching played into Gainesville’s win. Aside from teaching the X’s and O’s, Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller also put into motion a brilliant, yet unorthodox play call very early that may have swung the momentum of the entire game. Facing a third-and-forever on its opening drive,
Miller opted to kick it away and pinned White County deep due to not having a man deep in anticipation of a punt.
Gainesville cashed in on the very next play with a fumble recovery in the end zone by Rucker for a touchdown.
Johnson also came through later with a blocked field goal and set up a touchdown pass to Lorentz.
Now that Gainesville is in the playoffs, we’ll see what they have in store for a postseason run.
Bill Murphy is a sports writer for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesbmurphy.