FAYETTEVILLE -- Bruce Miller shook off a few drops of water and issued a challenge to his team.
"This is great, but this is not what our goal is," said Miller after receiving an ice bath from a jubilant band of Red Elephants. "We've got some unfinished business."
Thanks to a 28-14 Class AAAAA semifinal defeat of Whitewater on Friday in Fayetteville, Gainesville will have a chance to pick up where it left off three seasons ago.
The Red Elephants dropped a heartbreaker the last time they played in the Georgia Dome, falling by one point in the 2009 Class AAA title game. Next Friday, the Red Elephants will battle Ware County for the Class AAAAA crown in an 8:30 p.m. showdown in Atlanta.
"We get to enjoy tonight's win for tonight and part of tomorrow and that's it," Gainesville linebacker Devon Stringer said. "We've got to get focused for next week."
Stringer and his defensive mates certainly came out zeroed in against Whitewater.
The Red Elephants (11-3) swarmed Wildcats running back Kendall Conley, holding the 2,000-plus-yard rusher to just 91 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries and negated a mammoth offensive line with speed and pursuit.
"We just did what we've done most of the year and what we talked about doing: swarm to the ball and bring a bad attitude," Stringer said. "We knew they would come out and try to run it down our throats, so this was big for us. We knew the defense was going to win it or lose it for us, and we stepped up."
Indeed, the Red Elephants forced three fumbles and four turnovers on downs and allowed just 313 yards -- much of that coming after Gainesville built a 28-6 advantage early in the third quarter.
And while the Red Elephants' offense only found its rhythm in spurts, Gainesville did more than enough to overcome a Wildcats team in its first ever state semifinal contest.
"We didn't play real well on offense but the defense did," MIler said. "We did what we had to do on offense. And we looked good at times. It's something to work on."
Gainesville still put up 414 yards, including 213 yards passing for quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is now just 30 yards short of the state record for passing yards in a career -- as a junior.
"I wasn't really thinking about the record; we just wanted to come out here and get back to the Dome and do whatever it took to win," said Watson, who completed 13 of 24 passes with a touchdown, as well as rushing 22 times for 85 yards and a score. "We had a lot of guys step up tonight. This team is all heart."
Running back Michael Byrd also impressed for Gainesville, rushing nine times for 80 yards and two scores, as well as hauling in a 30-yard pass. The sophomore's 55-yard touchdown run at the start of the second half stamped the Red Elephants' authority on the game and set Gainesville on its way to another state title shot.
"We can't be happy with just this. We are happy and we want them (the players) to be happy, but we've got to go down there and bring Gainesville a state championship," Miller said of a program that will be gunning for its first state crown in GHSA play after falling in title games in 1960, '68, '69, '72, '82 and '09.
The Red Elephants looked ready for a title shot from the outset on Friday, forcing a fumble on the opening kickoff and taking over at the Whitewater 27. But the Red Elephants offense needed some time to find its rhythm, turning the ball over on downs at the Wildcats 18.
Gainesville's defense responded with its own stand just minutes later, giving up some yardage before forcing a 37-yard field goal attempt from the Wildcats that bounced off the upright and paved the way for the Red Elephants first score.
Taking over at the 20, Gainesville surged downfield, with Watson -- who rolled up 208 yards in the first half -- surging into the end zone from two yards for a 7-0 lead with 2:19 left in the first quarter.
It was just the start for the Red Elephants, who came up with another two-yard touchdown run, this time from Michael Byrd, to extend their lead to 14-0 with 5:51 left in the second quarter.
Whitewater's power ground game found tough going against Gainesville for much of the first half, as the Red Elephants bent but refused to break for much of the opening 24 minutes, including a fourth-and-one stand at the Red Elephants' 36. Conley -- who had 80 yards before the interval -- finally broke away for the Wildcats just before the half, bouncing off defenders to rip off a 27-yard touchdown run with 4:39 remaining. Whitewater missed the point after kick to pull within 14-6.
Yet Gainesville fired right back, despite turning the ball over on downs inside the Whitewater 20 with just over two minutes before the interval.
After forcing and recovering a Wildcats fumble at the Whitewater 36, the Red Elephants surged ahead 21-6 on a one-yard pass from Watson to Rodney Lackey.
The score only seemed to fuel the Red Elephants' offense, and Gainesville stormed back out of the locker room, using just three plays to add to its advantage, Byrd taking a handoff and bursting 55 yards up the middle for a 28-6 lead 45 seconds into the third quarter.
The score was anything but a harbinger, however, as the Red Elephants struggled on their next two possessions, Lackey fumbling away and Watson throwing his first interception since Sept. 7. Yet the Gainesville defense was up to the task after both turnovers, forcing a punt -- the first of the game -- and then ripping the ball away on the very next play after the interception to maintain the Red Elephants hold on the contest.
Whitewater refused to go quietly, Trevor Morgan snagging a fourth-and-11 pass and rumbling 46 yards to set up a nine-yard touchdown pass from Jay Ashley to Jake Carlson with 4:49 remaining. Whitewater completed a two-point conversion to pull within 28-14, but it wasn't enough to deny the Red Elephants, who were singularly focused on getting back to Atlanta.
"These kids are playing their heart out, and they've got to do it one more time," Miller said.
Gainesville....7...14....7....0 -- 28
GHS -- Watson 2 run (Turner kick) 2:19, 7-0
GHS -- Byrd 2 run (Turner kick) 5:51, 14-0
WHS -- Conley 27 run (kick failed) 4:39, 14-6
GHS -- Lackey 1 pass from Watson (Turner kick) :03, 21-6
GHS -- Byrd 55 run (Turner kick) 11:15, 28-6
WHS -- Carlson 9 pass from Ashley (Conley pass to Ashley), 4:59, 28-14