Saturday May 28th, 2016 4:41PM

Historic feats finally sinking in for Red Elephants, Dragons

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
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Bruce Miller and T McFerrin hoped to have a little free time following last week's state championship games.

Think again.

The first few days following their teams' historic state championship victories have seen the two coaches glued to their phones and computers -- and they have enjoyed every minute of it.

"I've been answering emails all day today (Tuesday)," said McFerrin after his Dragons knocked Calhoun from the top spot in Class AA with a 31-14 win on Saturday in Atlanta. "I had 75 from people wanting to wish us well, former players of mine, Jefferson alumni and a few folks I've never met. It's been unbelievable to see the outpouring of support."

Miller too has been overwhelmed

"Saturday morning I had 54 texts from people from all over congratulating us on our win, and I have tried to sit down and reply to each of them," Miller said. "It's been great to see all the wish-wishes and warm thoughts from people."

Gainesville alumni and fans alike have reveled in the Red Elephants' breakthrough to the top of the mountain, claiming their first GHSA crown on their seventh attempt -- with most of the previous six defeats coming by the type of near-misses that can take months and ever years to heal.

The 2012 Gainesville squad certainly did much to make up for those past close calls, ripping a proverbial monkey off its collective backs and stomping it flat in a 49-13 defeat of Ware County in the Class AAAAA championship on Friday in Atlanta.

"This group will always be special," Miller added. "It was a very special feeling on Friday night, and it will be one of those things of your lifetime that you'll always remember how special it was."

The Dragons' moment on Saturday proved no less momentous, as McFerrin's charges claimed their first crown.

"This team has done so much for this community and their place in history is established," McFerrin said. "The town had already gone absolutely crazy just by making it to the championship game."

The joy of Saturday's title spilled over into Monday's football banquet, where 350 people squeezed in to see the Dragons take a moment to savor the season with each other one last time.

"We did have the banquet scheduled before the championship game, but we had to keep putting it off, so we had to work like crazy to get everything ready when we finally did have it," McFerrin said. "I spent all Sunday working on it, but it went off great, and everybody really enjoyed it."

After a postseason in which McFerrin and the Dragons reveled in their underdog status -- Jefferson was not even a preseason top 10 -- the coach bestowed a new moniker on the 2012 squad.

"I had told the media throughout the playoffs that this group was overachievers, but I told them on Monday I'm going to quit calling you overachievers and change that to 'champions,' " said McFerrin, who claimed his 317th career win and second GHSA title last week after previously winning the Class AA crown in 1995 with Elbert County.

"These guys deserved what they got, and they were a pleasure coach. I've coached a lot of teams in 38 years, but they've got to be one of my favorites."

Certainly Miller will look back with plenty of fondness on his 2012 Red Elephants -- a team that overcame plenty on the football field, including a jump of two classification sizes while blooding several new starters on each side of the ball.

"This team simply refused to listen to people tell them, 'well, this is as far as you can go this year; this is as good as you can be,' " Miller said. "Really it was just a bunch of kids that just refused to ever admit they could be beaten."

Perhaps it was two losses that proved to be the defining moment of the campaign, however, as the Red Elephants catapulted themselves out of back-to-back defeats to end the regular season.

"Those losses proved the catalyst for this team," Miller said. "I remember how low I felt after the Flowery Branch game (a 35-34 defeat on the final night of the regular season for the Region 8-AAAAA crown), but we met on Sunday after that and just kicked it into gear. And the kids weren't down. They were just like, 'we've got one last run; let's see what happens.' "

What happened was that an already talented team hit its stride at just the right time, including playing its best game of the campaign in the title showdown.

"As a coach you always wonder how to get a team to peak at just the right time, and this group just came along great," Miller said. "Everybody else had written them off. But we played better each round and in that title game we played good in every aspect of the game."

And while media outlets around the state spent much of the postgame lauding the electric play of junior quarterback Deshaun Watson, Miller paid tribute to a strong senior class that included standouts such as Fred Payne -- who grabbed two game-changing turnovers on Friday.

"Michael Pittman, Conner Calvert, Damian Grayson, TK Mize, Chase England, Keyontra Harrison, Caleb Hayman, Lahius Leverette and Gilbert Ibarra... guys like that played a huge role on this team, and they just all fit together," Miller said. "And it got to the point in the playoffs where no one cared who got the credit, so long as we kept winning."

Miller and McFerrin also paid large tributes to their coaching staffs after the season's success.

"During the playoffs we had coaches in here on Saturday morning working until 1 or 2 p.m. and then on Sunday they'd be here from 12:30-1 p.m. until 8:30, 9 at night -- and that doesn't include all the time on the practice field and watching film with players, getting those guys to come in early in the week," Miller said. "I've never seen a team more prepared than we were in those last three games."

And now every member of both programs will get a chance to reap the benefits of those rewards -- at least for a little while.

"This group will always be special. I received a letter from a fan this week saying the team had already given him his Christmas present," Miller said before adding, "I'm already thinking about next year. I'll come back after the holidays and it will be time to get ready for another year."

No matter the successes that await in 2013, however, there will always be something unique about 2012.

"I think people will talk about this around Jefferson for forever," McFerrin said.
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