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GAC takes turnaround season into playoffs

The first-round football playoff schedule was kind to most Gwinnett teams, with six at home tonight and four more in metro Atlanta.

Then there is Greater Atlanta Christian.

GAC AT FANNIN COUNTY

Who: GAC Spartans (6-AA) at Fannin County Rebels (8-AA)

When: Today, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Fannin County High School (Ga. Hwy. 53 to Gainesville and toward Dawsonville. Take Ga. Hwy. 183 toward Ellijay, then Ga. Hwy. 52 West to Ga. Hwy. 515. In Ellijay, take Ga. Hwy. 515 north for approximately 12 miles. At the first light in Fannin County, turn right and then right on Rebel Circle)

Coaches: Tim Cokely, GAC; Clark Drennan, Fannin

Records: GAC 8-2; Fannin 6-4

Last week: GAC beat Blessed Trinity 24-19; Fannin lost to Elbert County 45-7

Winner plays: Carver-Columbus-Pepperell winner

GAC Leaders:

Rushing: Kyle Scales, 415 yards

DaSean Daniels, 409 yards

Passing: Jared Chapple, 654 yards

David McTier, 429 yards

Receiving: Kaliff Raymond, 249 yards

The Spartans play tonight’s Class AA state playoff opener in Blue Ridge, a good two-hour drive to play Fannin County along the state’s northern border.

“I lived in Tallahassee (at his previous job at North Florida Christian) and some of my league games were in Jacksonville, some were in Pensacola,” first-year GAC head coach Tim Cokely said. “Some of our closest games were 180 miles. Some of the guys here were talking about a two-hour trip to Fannin and I thought that was close. But I don’t think any of that matters much. The team that prepares the best will be the one that wins.”

The travel isn’t a huge deal for many of the Spartans, who are simply enjoying a return to the playoffs. They made 14 straight postseason appearances up until last season, when they ended with a disappointing 1-9 record.

Much has changed since last season, though. GAC has pulled off the biggest record turnaround in the county this season, taking an 8-2 record into the playoff opener.

Cokely has been pleased with his players’ improvements since he took over, both on and off the football field.

“Every day I’ve been on the job, these kids have worked very hard,” he said. “They’ve worked hard in the weight room. The weight room breeds confidence in football and we’ve gained some confidence. And it comes simply from weight training.”

The new coaching staff took a unique approach from the start, one that Cokely said likely won’t change in the future. He puts an emphasis on defense, and players like Jarrod Rickman, Patrick Haberstroh and Jonathan Ford have stepped up for a defense that has made great strides this season.

Meanwhile, GAC uses an offense by committee approach as several full-time defensive players are only part-time offensive guys. Three tailbacks — Kyle Scales, DaSean Daniels and Lavondre Nelson — have carried a pretty equal load and the same is true at the quarterback spot, where both Jared Chapple and David McTier play a bunch.

The formula seemed to work as the victories came quickly for the Spartans, who won their first three games as part of a 6-1 start.

“Our guys understand what winning football is from our perspective,” Cokely said. “It’s taking care of the ball, good defense and good special teams.”

Turnovers were an issue last Friday, but GAC still found a way to beat Blessed Trinity in a Region 6-AA play-in game. The Spartans can’t afford more errors tonight against the No. 2 seed from 8-AA, Fannin, a team that Cokely said is better than its 6-4 record.

“The key for us is to focus on our opponent,” Cokely said. “This team would be second or third in our region and we have a tough region.”