GAINESVILLE — Todd Cottrell knows a championship-level team when he sees one.
The coach came within a couple of possessions of leading Gainesville to a state crown in 2013 -- not to mention steering stellar teams at Flowery Branch and now Lakeview Academy.
He's also drawn the tough task of coaching against the current crop of Red Elephants, a squad that will play for the Class 6A crown on Friday in Atlanta. (The game will be broadcast live on WDUN AM 550/102.9 FM.) And Cottrell believes this year's Gainesville team amongst the best he's come across.
"They've got all the ingredients; they've got shooters; they can all handle the ball; they're all athletic and long; they all play hard on defense. ... We couldn't find a weakness," said Cottrell, whose Class A private semifinalist team of 2017 fell to Gainesville 104-67 in the Lanierland tournament. "And then they have all that depth. Top-to-bottom they are as talented as any team I've seen."
That said, Cottrell also knows that in a one-game, winner-take-all scenario anything can happen.
"That's what makes tournament basketball so fun, and you've got to have a lot of things come together, and that's why a lot of great teams don't end up as champions," Cottrell said.
The Red Elephants have endured close shaves with greatness over the last three decades, but no team has found its way onto the winner's podium since the explosive, back-to-back championship teams of 1983-84.
"You think about how many teams have been to state and made runs, it's hard to believe it's been 34 years," former Gainesville basketball standout Kris Nordholz said.
A standout guard, who went on to play for the University of Georgia, Nordholz grew up watching the championship teams of 83-84 and helped the Red Elephants to three straight quarterfinals (1989-1991) as a player under legendary coach Jerry Davis.
"As an elementary school kid watching those teams win was incredible," Nordholz said. "They were no different from NBA players as far as I was concerned. And that's the great thing about high school athletics. It's a unifying factor for a community. And while winning a state title would be awesome, it's really just about how great athletics is, and how it gives it a sense of place in the community."
Certainly the Red Elephants have wowed the city with their dominance of late, but it's also a community that has waited some time to see Gainesville get over the hump.
The program has eight state semifinals to its name since '84 ('85, '92, '97, 99, '01, '02, '09 and '13), including the 2013 team that pushed serial state champ Miller Grove to the wire before falling 61-57 in the Class 5A championship game.
"What a year that was; I have so many great memories of that group even to this day," Cottrell said. "They fought so hard, and every game it seems like came down to the wire. But we got absolutely hot at the right time, and we had a bunch of seniors with experience."
The current Gainesville squad shares that attribute with the 2013 group, with seven senior contributors. And while that '13 squad had Shaquan Cantrell and Luke England, who each went on to impressive collegiate careers, as well as Caleb Hayman, Tray Harrison, Luke Moore and then-junior Deshaun Watson (who would not play as a senior due to early graduation), the current team boasts standouts such as KJ Buffen, Xavier Bledson, Bailey Minor, Jarrel and Jarred Rosser, Ka'Juan Hale, junior Brent Kelly and sophomore Raphael Rubel.
And while this group owns a 21-game win streak, the 2013 crew entered the championship game on a 15-game win streak and pushed Miller Grove from the start, leading 25-19 at the half before swapping eight leads in the fourth quarter before coming up just two possessions short against a Wolverines program that won six straight crowns from 2009-14.
"All successful teams defend well and share a mix of skill and athleticism, as well as experience," Cottrell said.
Certainly the current Gainesville squad has been in plenty of big games -- including last year's state quarterfinal loss to Langston Hughes, who went on to claim the 6A crown after winning in overtime in Gainesville. Hughes will look to defend that title on Friday in Atlanta, and the Red Elephants are preparing for another battle.
"They've done a great job preparing through the year with a really tough schedule," Cottrell said of Gainesville and coaching colleague Benjie Wood. "Their talent is phenomenal. And how they play together, as a coach you really appreciate it."
Will it be enough to finally end that drought for Gainesville?
Considering the talents on display tonight -- Hughes also features Virginia Tech-bound guard Landers Nolley -- it should be fun finding out.
"When I was a kid my dad would take me down to Atlanta to watch the state championship games when they were at Tech too, and it was a really big day out for me. Now I'm doing the same with my son, and it's just really neat to have that link," Nordholz said.
GAINESVILLE BOYS vs. LANGSTON HUGHES
- WHAT: Class 6A basketball state championship
- WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday
- WHERE: McCamish Pavilion, Georgia Tech, Atlanta
- RADIO: WDUN AM 550/102.9 FM
- NOTABLE: Defending state champion Hughes defeated Gainesville in overtime in the 2017 state quarterfinals
CHAMPIONSHIP WEEK CONTENT:
- VIDEO: Red Elephants tested, eager to make most of championship rematch
CLASS 5A GIRLS
- GAME STORY: Ozment leads Lady Wolves to another crown, as Buford fends off Branch