Monday October 23rd, 2017 5:49AM

Gainesville 'aching' to bring home title this time around (Video)

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
  Contact Editor
There are times on the football field when Deshaun Watson appears clairvoyant enough, dissecting defenses as though he was in the opposition huddle.

And what the Gainesville quarterback revealed this week only adds to the appearance of those psychic tendencies -- at least his teammates, coaches and thousands of Red Elephants fans hope so.

"In seventh grade I told a lot of my friends that my junior year we were going to the (Georgia) Dome, and I think we're going to win (a state title)," Watson said.

It's an exciting thought indeed for everyone connected with Gainesville football, but Watson and his teammates know there is nothing guaranteed on Friday night in Atlanta -- and their destiny will only be what the Red Elephants can make of it when they take on Ware County for the Class AAAAA title at 8:30 p.m.

Earlier this week, Access North Georgia.com sports editor Morgan Lee caught up with members of the Gainesville football team to talk about the 2012 campaign, their title hopes and the challenge presented by Ware County. To watch a video feature with the team, click "play" below.

Preview: AAAAA State Championship Gainesville vs Ware County from WDUN TV on Vimeo.

Certainly Gainesville football fans will feel the Red Elephants' time is due. Despite playing for a GHSA crown on six previous occasions -- 1960, '68, '69, '72, '82 and 2009 -- Gainesville has yet to claim the title. And, aside from 1960, each of those losses produced agonizingly close finishes, with the Red Elephants falling in their last five championship bouts by an average of 3.8 points per game -- including a 13-12 loss to Peach County in the 2009 Class AAA finale.

The Red Elephants' most recent Georgia Dome appearance has certainly affected Gainesville's preparations for this season's title assault -- with head coach Bruce Miller reminding his team of their championship goals just seconds after last week's 28-14 semifinal win at Whitewater -- Miller implored his team to "stay hungry" in a postgame huddle.

"I think it's from that experience. I think in 2009 we were a little bit satisfied to get there, and this team, the way it's fought back to get there, this thing's not over," Miller said. "We've got some unfinished business."

Focus and normalcy have been two watchwords for the Red Elephants this week, as they

"We're just making sure we've gotten the little things covered and that we're ready to play when we get in there," Miller said. "It's another game. We don't want to make it bigger than what it is or smaller than what it is. Let's just play and see what happens."

The contest features an intriguing match-up between one of the top offenses and defenses in the state, as Watson -- who is currently 17 yards shy of the state record for career passing yards -- leads a Red Elephants squad scoring 45.1 points and rolling up 446 yards per contest against a Gators defense that is allowing just 8.6 points per game.

Ware County's 4-3 defense has shut out five opponents this campaign, including a powerful Stephenson program in the quarterfinals, 14-0.

"They're very quick. They're the quickest defense we've seen all year," Miller said of a Gators team led by senior defensive tackle Jimal McBride (136 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, six sacks, five forced fumbles) and freshman middle linebacker Dedrick Mills (121 tackles, 10 sacks). "They're also well-coached. And I haven't seen any team run the ball on them consistently. Our guys will have to get in there and be more determined than ever to make plays."

Ware County coach Ed Dudley says that his team will have a hard time slowing Watson (3,707 yards passing, 70 percent completion rate, 47 TDS; 1,356 yards rushing, 22 TDs) and a multi-faceted Red Elephants attack that also features four receivers with over 400 yards -- including Rodney Lackey (team-high 64 catches, 938 yards, 14 TDs), Caleb Hayman (46 catches, 721 yards, 13 TDs) and Tray Harrison (41 catches, 588 yards, 5 TDs) -- and explosive running back Michael Byrd (655 yards rushing, 7 TDs; 37 receptions, 399 yards, 4 TDs).

"I don't know if you do stop the Gainesville offense," said Dudley, who was also the head coach at Buford from 1992-94. "Deshaun is really the catalyst for what they do, and they do a great job spreading it around. As I prepare for the game, the big question is how do you slow down a guy like Deshaun Watson, not many do. This is a tough task for our team. This is a game where we may need some good fortune -- a blocked punt, a score on special teams -- to win the game."

The Gainesville defense knows it will also have to be at its best this weekend, facing a dangerous Ware County attack that averages 30.1 points and 331 yards per game.

"They balance out their run and pass very well," Red Elephants linebacker Devon Stringer said. "They don't have a lot of down and distance tendencies -- they may pass it on first and 10 or third and 1. We have to prepare for any situation. It's going to be a big key this week getting lined up."

The run game has been more of the Gators bread and butter this season, especially with senior back Xavier Tobler, who has 1,648 yards and 27 touchdowns. Ware County averages 241 rush yards per game, though junior quarterback Jammar Johnson is also a threat with his arm, passing for 1,250 yards and seven scores. Johnson has also rushed for 376 yards and four TDs.

Gainesville, which is led by Stringer's 171 tackles -- lineman Damian Grayson also paces the Red Elephants with 15 tackles for loss -- drew plenty of confidence from last week's performance against Whitewater in which they held 2,000-plus-yard rusher Kendall Conley to 91 yards and a touchdown.

"We've worked hard all year, faced a lot of adversity," Stringer said. "I'm so proud of my teammates to keep coming through. I couldn't be any more proud of a group than I am right now, and we're going to try to make history this week."

It's a heady proposition for the Red Elephants, who have battled through a season of ups and downs that included a win over Buford, a two-game losing streak to end the regular season and now a storming four-game playoff streak that includes three straight road wins. And all of this in Gainesville's first season in Class AAAAA.

"It's been a roller coaster ride, but it's been a fun journey," Miller said. "This is a scrappy bunch. They've got a lot of fight in them. They never give up. They've had a lot of chances to fold their tent, and they've fought back."

Now Gainesville hopes that fight will prove enough for just one more Friday.

"We're playing the best football team we've seen all year, and we'll have to see how that plays out, but our guys have got a strong desire to bring a state championship home to Gainesville," Miller said. "I'm aching for it. I want to do it. You don't know the next time you'll get back there. I want to do it for community, for the school, for our kids. I saw the heart-ache last time we were there. I would love to see the celebration."

COMING UP: On Friday we'll preview Jefferson's battle with Calhoun, as well as take an inside look at Gainesville's explosive offense. ... ALSO on Friday we'll present a special video review of Buford, Gainesville and Jefferson's MARCH TO THE DOME. And be sure to read all of the in-game and postgame coverage of the area trio's championship games on Access North Georgia.com.

-- WHAT: Class AAAAA football championship
-- WHEN: 8:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
-- RADIO: 1240 AM, 102.9 FM
-- GAINESVILLE (11-3, No. 2 seed Region 8-AAAAA): Defeated Whitewater 28-14 in the semifinals.
-- WARE (13-1, No. 1 seed Region 3-AAAAA): Defeated Northside, Warner Robins 24-17 in overtime in the semifinals.
-- HISTORY: This is the two teams' first meeting, though Waycross High -- in the county seat of Ware -- did defeat Gainesville in the 1960 Class AA title game.
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