Sunday September 24th, 2017 2:52AM

Gainesville ready to make road its home once again

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
  Contact Editor
Conner Calvert is well aware of Kendall Conley, and, tonight, the Gainesville defensive tackle hopes to get up close and personal with the Whitewater running back.

To do so, Calvert knows he's got his work cut out for him, as he'll first have to find a way past a dominant Wildcats offensive line that features players like 6-foot-9, 368-pound offensive tackle Pat Dalton -- and there's dealing with Conley himself, a player with an explosive combination of speed and strength.

It's a challenge that the Red Elephants senior says he, and his teammates, are relishing.

"We're focused on (Conley), and they've got some big boys, but we've been playing against big offensive lines all year," said Calvert, who will help lead Gainesville into tonight's Class AAAAA semifinal showdown in Fayetteville -- where the Red Elephants hope to make use of their speed and athleticism to slow down Conley.

"We're all fast. I weigh the most, and I'm about 260," Calvert said. "It's all about speed. We're able to move east and west and stop people running the ball."

Few teams have come close to accomplishing that feat against Whitewater and Conley this campaign, as the senior has rolled up 2,049 yards and 36 touchdowns.

Earlier this week, Access North Georgia sports editor Morgan Lee caught up with members of the Gainesville football team to talk about Friday's big semifinal showdown. To watch a video preview of the battle, click "play" below.

Preview: Gainesville vs White Water from WDUN TV on Vimeo.

"The challenge is they've got a tremendous offensive line, and their running back is the best we've seen so far," Red Elephants coach Bruce Miller said. "We're going to have to get around him, make plays and gang tackle him. He looks like he's on skates he runs so fast. We're going to have to be ready to play when we go in there."

While Gainesville's offense has garnered much of the attention this postseason -- posting Madden-like points and yardage totals, including 125 points combined in their last two wins -- the Red Elephants' defense has also raised its game, holding two of three foes to 14 points or less and forcing plenty of turnovers and big plays. And Gainesville knows that it will not get back to the Georgia Dome and a state championship game for the first time since 2009 unless it's "D" comes up big again tonight.

"Our coaches say this every day but defense wins championships. That is definitely going to come into play this week," Calvert said. "We're either going to win this game for our team or God forbid if we didn't let it happen."

It's a thought process being echoed by a Whitewater team that knows it faces an even taller task against the Red Elephants' high-flying offense.

"Everybody knows about (Deshaun Watson) and that he's up for the best player in the state (status)," Wildcats coach Amos McCreary said. "When you have a player that good you can only try to slow him down, because you know he's going to get his yards and plays."

Watson has already eclipsed the eye-popping numbers that helped the Red Elephants to last year's Class AAA semifinals, putting up 4,742 yards (3,480 yards passing, 71 percent completion rate; 1,262 yards rushing) and 68 total touchdowns (46 passing, 21 rushing, 1 receiving). He is also surrounded by a deadly cast of receivers and backs, including Rodney Lackey (team-high 60 receptions for 902 yards, 13 TDs), Caleb Hayman (44 receptions, 794 yards, 13 TDs), Tray Harrison (38 receptions, 523 yards, 5 TDs), Michael Byrd (577 yards rushing, 5 TDs; 36 receptions, 364 yards, 4 TDs) and Jay Gaudlock (360 yards rushing, 2 TDs; 34 receptions, 310 yards, 4 TDs).

Perhaps most impressively, Gainesville has cherished the ball this postseason, not giving up a single turnover

"We're playing extremely well right now on offense, and defensively too," Miller said. "Things are coming together. The last three games we've played well, haven't turned the ball over, haven't made the critical mistake. Our playmakers are making plays. I could go back over all three games and say if a kid doesn't make a catch there or a block there things don't happen. But they did happen and things are coming together right now."

After reaching this same position last season -- albeit in Class AAA instead of AAAAA -- Watson says he and his teammates won't be overwhelmed by the moment this time after suffering a 63-28 loss at the hands of eventual state champion Burke County.

"It was something new last year. The environment was crazy, the atmosphere was nuts," Watson said. "This year I'm calmer, more relaxed. I'm going to take it as a regular game and hopefully we come out with a victory."

To do so, the Red Elephants must find a way past a Wildcats defense allowing just 13.6 points per game. Whitewater features linebackers Colton Clemons and Christian Wafford, as well as 5-11, 300 pound nose guard Malik Harris. Senior punter Austin Barnard is also a potential game-changer and is one of the highest rated at his position in the state.

"Our kids certainly feel like they can beat anybody right now," said McCreary who has led the program since its inception in 2004 and is in the midst of the Wildcats' deepest postseason run. "Two years ago we went on the road in the first round and beat Northside, Warner Robins, but then we had to get on a bus ride next week and go five hours to play Ware County. That put us in a tough position. So getting a number one seed for us has been big."

After entering the playoffs as a No. 1 seed for the past four seasons, the Red Elephants have shown plenty of ability to handle the underdog role in 2012, winning their first postseason games away from Bobby Gruhn Field since 2004 after finishing as the No. 2 seed from Region 8-AAAAA.

"It's been pretty fun, traveling and seeing new places, going against more talented opponents. The team is having fun," Watson said. "We call ourselves the road warriors. Every Friday we say we're going on a business trip, because we've got to take care of business."

That will again be the case this week, and Calvert says his team is ready for the opportunity.

"I think it definitely builds confidence when you go into someone's territory and defeat them in their home turf. But it's not that much different playing home and away," Calvert said. "I'd rather play at home, but when you're on the road, it's all about that mindset. It's all focus and mentality. You can play in someone's backyard and play as long as you're playing."

Win again this week and Gainesville will be playing in a venue that is dreamt of in most backyard football games around the state: the Georgia Dome.

"We're very focused. Our kids are getting after it," Miller said. "We've been practicing football a long time, and our kids are resilient. They work at it. They want to get better. They want to keep going, and the coaches want to keep going, and the community wants to keep going."

-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: Wildcat Stadium, Fayetteville
-- RADIO: 1240 AM
-- GAINESVILLE (10-3, No. 2 seed Region 8-AAAAA): Defeated Harris County 64-13 in quarterfinal round.
-- WHITEWATER (12-1, No. 1 seed Region 4-AAAAA): Defeated Allatoona 24-3 in quarterfinal round.
-- HISTORY: This is the two teams' first meeting.
-- WINNER PLAYS: Ware County vs. Northside, Warner Robins winner in the Class AAAAA title game
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