JEFFERSON — Any way you slice it, Gainesville vs. Jefferson in football is a big deal.
Even with the Red Elephants in the midst of a transition and 0-3, this is still a battle of northeast Georgia and state heavyweights -- Gainesville is the third winningest program in GHSA history (740 victories), while Jefferson holds an impressive 457 wins of its own (49th among active programs).
And it is why both teams are preparing for a war tonight in the Dragons' Memorial Stadium in only their third-ever meeting.
"They’re obviously very hungry for a significant win. And, certainly, even though we haven’t played a lot through our two school’s histories, it’s a great rivalry for local interest and just up the road from one another," Jefferson coach Gene Cathcart said. "Our players are friends with their players; our coaches are friends with their coaches, so it’s a very good rivalry for the area, and we’re excited for the opportunity to play who we feel like is one of the marquee name teams in the area."
New Gainesville coach Heath Webb understands the significance of the showdown -- in more ways than one.
"It’s a marquee match-up in northeast Georgia, Gainesville and Jefferson, two great programs, two storied programs. So we look forward to competing against those guys and look forward to going to their stadium, into a hostile environment and gaining experience from that as well," Webb said. "We have such an inexperienced roster that those guys have never been in those crunch situations before. And so we’ve now been there, been there done that kind of thing, so hopefully we’ll be able to lean on the experience from our last few ballgames to now learn how to finish one."
After a stunning 42-0 loss to a powerhouse fourth-ranked Mary Persons team in the season opener, the Red Elephants fought back in successive contests but have yet to close out a win, falling to North Forsyth 24-21 and Lambert 16-15 despite leading in the fourth quarter of both contests.
A bounce back on Friday would go a long way for a program still rebuilding after successive losing campaigns and in the midst of its first head coaching change in 16 years.
"There’s a whole new energy; there’s a whole new vibe. I feel like everyone is coming together," Gainesville senior offensive lineman Kyle Barrett said. "This game, if we get this win this is everything to us. We need something to build from. If we get this win that’s going to lead to more."
That is why Class 3A No. 8 Jefferson is not even looking at the Red Elephants (0-3) record in preparation.
"It means a lot; they’re a big program, and they’ve got a lot of athletes, and a lot of tradition so it should be a good game," Dragons junior linebacker/running back Kade McNally said.
Both teams expect a slugfest in the trenches, as the Dragons (2-1) bring their option-based spread into play against Gainesville's run-oriented spread attack.
"It's going to be extremely physical, I’m ready for it. It’s going to be a good game," Gainesville junior offensive lineman Jordan Williams said.
The Red Elephants have featured senior running back Quintavious Hayes (290 yards rushing, 2 TDs), as junior quarterback Walt Dixon works his way into a starting role.
"They do a great job in the zone run game, great job in the zone read game," Cathcart said of Gainesville. "And they’ve got athletic quarterbacks that can read the backside of it and take it out the backdoor and can also do the RPO game and run-pass-option I should say. But they also have a bunch of guys — they’re running backs run hard; they have physical, large lineman that can move."
The Red Elephants too know that Jefferson -- led by junior quarterback Colby Clark (242 yards rushing, 5 TDs) -- will make establishing the line of scrimmage a priority.
"They’re fast, they’re physical. They run the ball well; they throw the ball well; they play great defense. For us it’s a matter of being able to match their level of intensity and take care of the football," Webb said of facing a Dragons team that bounced back from a season-opening loss at Oconee County with a 48-6 defeat of West Hall and 31-7 win over Southside (S.C.).
"Our baseball team won the state and our track team did very, very well, so we were without a lot of guys in the spring," Cathcart said. "Then we didn’t have a spring game because of weather. So we’ve kind of been growing as we play, kind of learning as we play in competition. Obviously played a good, well-coached Oconee team and didn’t quite get that done and improved a lot to the next week with West Hall and showed improvement again with Southside. So we’re certainly excited to be back at home against who we feel like is a very underrated Gainesville team."
With both teams looking for traction as the non-region portion of the schedule nears its end, you can bet that there will be no letting up tonight.
"We’ve got to keep blocking and running hard, and defense has got to keep playing like we’re playing, lock down and just keep improving as the year goes out," McNally said.
For Gainesville it's all about taking that next step.
"At the start of the season we had a roster with 32 names on it or something like that," Barrett said. "We’ve got a new locker room out there. The weight room’s cranking up; everybody’s getting their maxes up. I think were gelling as a team, and we’ll be better in the long run."