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Battle of unbeatens at West Forsyth
Perennial power Gainesville comes calling
Quarterback Lance Baker will lead the upstart West Forsyth Wolverines into Friday night's battle with Gainesville. The showdown with the visiting Red Elephants, also unbeaten, is arguably the biggest game in West's two-year history. - photo by Jared Putnam

There should be plenty of eyes turned to the West Forsyth campus when kickoff rolls around tonight.

For one thing, the Wolverines have the county stage largely to themselves, with the three other public high schools taking their byes this week.

But beyond that, tonight’s showdown is easily the biggest game in West’s short history, as Gainesville’s Red Elephants stampede into town for a midseason showdown.

Both teams are 5-0, but the two programs couldn’t look more different. On one side, Gainesville comes in with 116 years of history, a No. 8 state ranking and five easy wins in the rearview so far this season.

On the other, West is the epitome of a ‘Johnny Come Lately,’ a second-year team that was playing junior varsity ball a year ago. In starting 5-0, the Wolverines have won both blowouts and squeakers, serving notice that they intend to make some noise in Region 7-AAA.

Gainesville head coach Bruce Miller seems more impressed than surprised at West’s early success.
Miller, who coached North Forsyth to a state semifinal appearance in 2001, knows a few things about getting a program off the ground, having been an assistant at Brookwood and Parkview when those teams started up.

“Usually it takes a couple years to get your feet up under you, but they look really good and that’s a tribute to their coaching staff,” Miller said of West.

Miller said he spoke with people in Gwinnett County who saw West play as a JV last season, and said he was told to expect a better program than might be the norm from a new school. West has some experienced upper-class students on the roster, Miller noted, which separates them from a typical start-up program.

The Wolverines come in on the heels of a 56-0 win over East Hall, in which coach Frank Hepler said he was pleased with the team’s ability to execute on offense and create turnovers on defense. He doesn’t expect things to be nearly as easy tonight against a Gainesville team that has outscored its first five opponents by a combined score of 169-14.

“I don’t know if we’re in the class of Gainesville yet,” Hepler said. “They look good. They had some kids transfer over and they look really good, and so we’ll just see. We’ll line up and give it our best shot.”

Both coaches are complimentary of each other’s film performances. Hepler says the Elephants can send four quality receivers downfield and still have a legitimate running threat in the backfield.

Junior quarterback Blake Sims launches the ball as far as 70 yards on film, Hepler said. Sims threw for 159 yards last Friday —passing the 1,000-yard mark for the season — while sophomore Devon Pierce picked up 96 rushing yards in a 43-0 Gainesville victory over West Hall.

Despite their early success, Miller says he hasn’t had to work hard to get his players to believe that West Forsyth will present a challenge.

“All you got to do is watch film. You watch film and you realize they’re for real. They’ve got a very good football team,” Gainesville’s coach said.

“We’ll find out against them just how good we really are.”

Both coaches say the opposing team brings back memories from the past. Miller says the Wolverines remind him of his last North team that made it to the Georgia Dome before losing in the state final four. Hepler says Gainesville makes him think of some of the great south Florida teams he encountered as a coach in the Miami area.

Hepler says he expects a solid crowd for tonight’s game, which will also benefit breast cancer awareness — a personal cause for the coach, whose wife dealt with the disease.

Miller says he expects plenty of Elephant fans to make the trip as well (“if anybody can find gas,” he added with a laugh).

Both sides are aware of the contrasts between the programs. For Miller, he doesn’t seem to be taking anything for granted against the region newcomers.

“They have very little history and we have a long history, but I think the thing is it comes down to who’s going to show up to play and who’s going to play the best when the game starts. It’s a big game,” Miller said.

Hepler sounds like he’d be in the bleachers for this one, if his coaching duties didn’t require him to show up anyway.

“I think if I was just a high school football fan, I would want to be here this weekend and see what happens. ... They’re going to be a great team and we’ve got a pretty good team. From that perspective, I think it’d be fun just to come out and watch."