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Posted: Thursday, October 18th 2012 at 5:04pm

Storied rivalry renewed with 8-AAAAA at stake

By Jeff Hart Staff
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Gainesville's Chandler Newton attacks an opposing ball carrier in a game played earlier this season. / photo: David Weikel
GAINESVILLE – A strange sight will take place at Bobby Gruhn Field at City Park Stadium Friday night.

Two storied programs – Gainesville and Clarke Central – will meet for the first time since Gerald Ford was president. That year it was a showdown of legendary coaches Bobby Gruhn and Billy Henderson in what finished as a 28-0 Red Elephants win.

Since then the Gladiators have won three state titles and played for five others, as recently as 2009, while Gainesville has played for two state titles, also as recently as in 2009, and both programs are annually considered among the elite teams in the state.

In six previous meetings, the Red Elephants own a 4-2 record against Clarke Central, one of just six teams to have a winning record against the Gladiators with four or more games played.

“That’s an interesting stat but most of us weren’t around the last time we played,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller said. “But I would have thought they would have played more not being that far apart. I just know that it should be a great matchup. There’s a lot at stake.”

Friday night’s matchup may not have state implications at this point in the season, but how Region 8-AAAAA shakes out at the end of the season will most certainly be affected. Gainesville (6-1, 5-0 in region) and Flowery Branch are tied atop the region with 5-0 records while Heritage, Conyers is 4-1 and Clarke Central (3-3, 3-1) currently sits in fourth place.

“All four teams are solid and really it just comes down to who plays the best on that night,” Miller said. “We’re all fighting for that No. 1 spot and they may have a chip on their shoulder after losing last week.”

The Gladiators dropped a 23-20 contest to Heritage in overtime and were without five starters, who were suspended after getting involved in an on-field fight against Salem two weeks ago. Gainesville already beat Heritage and rolled over Salem 49-6 last week.

A Clarke Central win would put the Gladiators within a half-game of first place with Flowery Branch to follow next week while the Red Elephants will have a week off before taking on Loganville and then a season-ending road battle with the Falcons in three weeks.

The Falcons, however, may own the key to the region title with games still left against all three teams – Gainesville, Heritage, and Clarke Central – in the final month of the season.

“I think us and Flowery Branch probably hold our fates in our hands,” Miller said. “It may come down to that final game between us. That would be fun.”

Fans should be the ones who have fun Friday. Both teams feature high-octane offenses that are averaging more than 85 points combined in region games behind two dynamic quarterbacks.

Gainesville is averaging 44 points during the season and Clarke Central 29 points during the season but both teams really turn things on in region games. The Elephants are scoring at a 52.8 point clip and the Gladiators are averaging 33 points in region games.

The Red Elephants have junior Clemson commit Deshaun Watson, who is 126-of-179 passing (71.8 percent) for 1,877 yards and 23 touchdowns with seven interceptions. He has rushed for 521 yards and 10 touchdowns on 86 carries (6.1 ypc).

The Gladiators have quarterback Cameron Johnson, who was one of the suspended players against Heritage. However, they will be missing leading rusher Rodney Willingham, who went down with a broken ankle in the Salem game and is out for the season.

“I expect that you will see just about everything out there,” Miller said. “I certainly expect us to score some points and it will be a huge challenge for our defense to slow them down. But just when you think you know how things will go, you get the opposite.”

While the offensive numbers are gaudy for Gainesville, the defense may be the glue that holds everything together. The Elephants defense is allowing just 15.7 and an even stingier 12.6 points in region games and held a powerful Buford team to just 15 points and forced numerous turnovers and then held Heritage to just 14 points.

Clarke Central is allowing 19.3 points a game but really gets stingy in region games, cutting that nearly in half at 10.1 points a contest.

Miller harkened back to the days of yore calling his group the “No Name Defense” after the old Miami Dolphins unit that led them to the 1972 Super Bowl.

“I call them that because they just go out there and do their job every week and so many different guys have stepped up it’s hard to say any one person stands out over another. They don’t get the credit they deserve,” he said. “But seniors Fred Payne (defensive back) and Michael Pittman (linebacker) and junior Devon Stringer (linebacker) probably are the key players. All three have been super all season long.

“The offenses look unstoppable but the key is defense. Whichever team gets the most stops and makes the big plays and forces turnovers will win. It sounds cliché but that is what will win this game.”

NOTES: Two of Clarke Central’s losses were by three points, one in OT to Heritage, which snapped a three-game win streak...The Gladiators are 1-2 on the road in 2012 and 5-4 in their last nine road games...GHS is 2-1 at home in 2012, its only loss to Class AAAAAA fifth-ranked West Forsyth (32-30)...The Elephants are 13-3 at home last two-plus seasons with two losses coming in the playoffs. They have not lost two regular season home games in a season since 2007...Gainesville owns a 4-2 all-time record against the Gladiators. One of just six teams (Griffin, Warner Robins, Valdosta, Brookwood, Lakeside (Atlanta) are the others) to have an overall winning record against the Gladiators with at least four games played. The last Clarke Central win in the series was in 1974, 14-7...The Gladiators have not scored more than 15 points, a 17-15 loss in 1970, in any game against Gainesville in the series.

-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: City Park, Gainesville
-- RADIO: 1240 AM
-- CLARKE CENTRAL (3-3, 3-1 Region 8-AAAAA): Lost to Heritage, Conyers 23-20 last week in overtime.
-- GAINESVILLE (6-1, 5-0 Region 8-AAAAAA): Defeated Salem 49-6 last week. The Red Elephants are ranked No. 8 in Class AAAAA.
-- HISTORY: Gainesville won the last meeting, 28-0 -- in 1975. The Red Elephants lead the series 4-2.
Associated Categories: Sports News, High School Sports

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