MACON — Coach Elie Viviant knows what it means to reach a state championship game; he also knows what it takes to win a GHSA crown.
The experience is something entirely new for Viviant's Gainesville boys soccer team members, however. And the Red Elephants coach is curious to see how his players react on the state's biggest prep stage.
"We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportuntity here, and I don't want them to miss out on it," said Viviant, who was the Red Elephants' top assistant when they claimed the 2010 Class AAA crown and finished as Class AAA runner-up in 2012. "Right now there is a lot of pressure on them, and a lot of them will never play in a bigger game."
Prior to Saturday's Class AAAAAA title showdown with Chattahoochee (at 7:30 p.m. at Mercer University's Five Star Stadium in Macon), Gainesville's biggest contest of the season came against No. 1-ranked Dalton in the semifinals. And the Red Elephants responded impressively, putting the previously dominant Catamounts (2013-15 repeat state champs) on the back foot with an early goal before sealing a 3-1 overtime victory at City Park.
"After last season a lot of people said we weren't going to make it, and now we're proving them wrong," said Gainesville standout Cristian Rodriguez after scoring both goals in the extra frame to seal the victory.
After falling in the 2016 Class AAAAA Sweet 16, few outside of the Red Elephants locker room would have predicted a 2017 title game run for Gainesville. However, Viviant -- in his first year as head coach after Rick Howard stepped down (Viviant helped Howard's Gainesville team to the 2010 crown) -- believed there was enough talent on hand to make a dent in the state bracket.
"I thought we could win the region, and the goal was to reach the Elite Eight (state quarterfinals) ," Viviant said. "I was here when we had that great run from 2010-12, but I didn't know if we could be that successful right away."
Once a talented young group began to gel -- seniors Brandon Reyna, Wilson Velasquez and Derian Alarcon are the exception to a starting line-up studded with underclassmen -- it became clear that something special was more than attainable.
"Once we played our second game against Habersham (Central, a 3-0 win on March 24) we got everyone healthy, and things have just gotten better and better since then," Viviant said. "I just hope we can finish it right."
The Red Elephants (19-2) face yet another tough task in doing so on Saturday, taking on a Chattahoochee squad that has dominated throughout the playoffs. The Cougars (18-2-1) have won their four postseason contests by a combined 22-2 -- though they face a Gainesville squad built on defensive solidity. In fact the Red Elephants have yielded just 16 goals all season (though Chattahoochee has not been far behind, yielding 21), including stifling a Dalton team that came into Tuesday's semifinal with 117 goals to its credit, Gainesville holding the Catamounts to their lowest scoring output since their only other loss of the campaign (2-1 to Fort Payne, Ala., on Feb. 28).
Yet Viviant knows that watershed semifinal performance must now be put in the past.
"They did a great job beating Dalton, but they have to realize that was a semifinal and not the final; they have to keep their emotions in check and realize we have another game," Viviant said. "Chattahoochee is really, really good. I want them to understand there are no easy games. And it's not always the best team that wins; it's the team that wants it more, the team that pays the most attention to detail."
So far this postseason, the Red Elephants have shown a ravenous capacity for both. Now they hope it can take them to their third ever state crown.