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Falcons look to continue dominance

2014 Region 8-AAAAA Football Preview

POSTED: May 28, 2014 12:00 p.m.

With the months of practices and planning and eventual games, one truth stands steadfast: it is always football season.

Although the first kickoff of the 2014 season must wait until late August, coaches and players all throughout Georgia, and especially in Region 8-AAAAA, are preparing for their first foray onto the gridiron.

For Flowery Branch football, that return will bring with it quite a few changes.

"Anytime you change your quarterback and lose such a great player, it’s tough," Flowery Branch head football coach Chris Griffin said of replacing senior Jackson McDonald. "That’s always the position that probably gives the head coach the most stress, but he’s not the only kid on the field. There are other players on the field, and we try to sell the mentality that there are 10 other guys out there who have to do their job just as well."

Griffin had a degree of consistency behind center for his first two years at Flowery Branch, but now he gets to groom up a new leader to run the offense and will pick between junior Brett Shepherd and sophomore Jasen Johnson.

"Both of them are good players and are doing all the things right, but one of them will be behind center next year," Griffin explained. "Both of them have plenty of experience in our system, and that’s a good thing."

Not that the new man behind center is without experience, as Shepherd had plenty of chances to fill in for McDonald in late games that were already well in hand while Johnson was the starting quarterback for the freshman team in 2013.

That kind of consistent success comes with a price, though, as Griffin has more than once found himself seeking out new coaches.

"We’ve lost more coaches than I can count. We’ve had very top notch coaches with a lot of experience," Griffin lamented. "That’s the price you pay for having good people."

One of those former assistants happens to be Heath Webb, the new head coach at Winder-Barrow.

Over the last two years, Flowery Branch football has scored an average of 39.44 points in the region while only allowing region opponents to score 18.88 points. As far as Region 8-AAAAA football goes, the 2012 region champs have been nearly flawless with just a single loss in the region over Griffin’s tenure, losing last season 55-45 to the defending state champs, Gainesville.

The year before, Flowery Branch’s Falcons defeated Big Red 35-34 to claim the Region 8-AAAAA title and the first seed out of the region going into the state playoffs. By merit of Gainesville’s upset loss to Loganville, the Elephants had to fight back and win the state championship as a third seed.

The Flowery Branch rivalry with Gainesville goes back a long way, as the two teams were reunited in Region 8-AAAAA after a stretch of time as the top dogs in Region 7-AAA. Every year from 2002 to 2009, Flowery Branch faced Gainesville at least once, only winning twice. The Falcons took out Gainesville two years straight with wins in 2006 and 2007, their only such streak in the series.

That was also about the time Flowery Branch was becoming a legitimate contender in football, though, having just started the program in 2002. In the first two seasons, they lost to Gainesville by a combined 100-10. Since 2003, though, the Falcons have been within two scores of Gainesville in every final score except for 2009’s regular season meeting.

The schools would meet in the state semifinals, though, where Flowery Branch finished with a 29-21 loss. Big Red went on to lose 13-12 in the finals to Peach County in what was their only loss all season.

"Games like that…that’s the pinnacle of high school football," Griffin said of the Gainesville rivalry.

The 2009 playoff loss was the last time Flowery Branch would see Gainesville until 2012 when the Falcons moved up to Winder-Barrow and Apalachee’s Region 8-AAAA and Gainesville stayed put.

It seemed that once the Falcons found their footing, the classification they were in meant little. From 2002-2004, Flowery Branch was a combined 6-24. Since 2005, though, the Falcons have amassed an impressive 88-22 record for an unmatched .800 winning percentage.

Flowery Branch has seen post-season football every year since 2005, too, carrying an exceptional nine-year streak into the 2014 season. In the last nine years as a playoff team, the Branch has earned a 13-9 record.

In that time, they have advanced beyond the first round six times. Unfortunately, two of those losses have come in the last two years as a representative of Region 8-AAAAA, and both times as the higher-seeded hosting team.

"It’s awful. It makes for a very, very long offseason," Griffin admitted. "You can’t have a great regular season and then shoot a blank in the first round of the playoffs. That’s why you play the season is to get to the playoffs."

Even with two straight losses in the first round, Griffin says that his team feels no additional pressure to perform strong in the 2014 postseason.

"As odd as it may sound, the pressure that I put on myself and the pressure on our kids and our assistant coaches should be no different," Griffin said. "We understand that week one is not the same as the first round, because it is a bigger game and they get bigger each week, but the stress of it is not any different."

Of course, to win in the first round, the Falcons must first get there.

With the addition of Lanier, another playoff team from Class AAAA, to Region 8-AAAAA, at least one perennial playoff contender will miss out on postseason football in 2014. Lanier was 9-3 in 2013 with their only two region losses coming against Monroe and Chestatee, both second round teams from last season.

Just Flowery Branch’s luck, they get to start their region schedule at Lanier.

All told, Flowery Branch will face five playoff contenders from 2013.

As good as the Falcons have been in-region under Griffin, with a 15-1 record in two seasons of Region 8-AAAAA football, they are yet to win a non-region game under the new coach. The Falcons are 0-6 in the last two years outside of Region 8-AAAAA, their last non-region win coming against Thomas County Central in the second round of the 2011 GHSA state football playoffs.

Then again, all six of those losses came against playoff teams of a consistently high quality. In those four regular season games, the Falcons have actually sought out teams that would bring a challenge to the field.

"If you were to go and look at the records of the teams that we lost to, they were very, very good teams," Griffin noted.

Of the six non-region teams that beat Flowery Branch, they had a combined 57-16 record in the seasons they played the Falcons.

"It would be easy to have gone and found a lesser opponent that we felt real good about, but us playing those two non-region games early in the year helped to make us a better football team so that we were better prepared," Griffin noted.

Flowery Branch will open the 2014 season with aspirations of once again competing for a playoff spot out of Region 8-AAAAA, but they will do it in a slightly different region than they are used to with four new head coaches and one completely new opponent in Lanier.

"It’s going to be a very scary year in a sense of just playing familiar teams and familiar programs, but I’m sure they’re going to have very different approaches," Griffin acknowledged.

Flowery Branch will host Winder-Barrow on Oct. 3. Two weeks later on Oct. 17 they will travel to Apalachee. In four years of playing the two Barrow County Schools, Flowery Branch is a combined 8-0.



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