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Gainesville, Flowery Branch meet in region title rematch

Falcons edged Red Elephants for championship last season

POSTED: November 8, 2013 10:44 a.m.
Jared Putnam/The Times

Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson throws a pass during practice on Wednesday at Gainesville High.

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No one just forgets about a one-point loss when it costs them a region title.

Even Gainesville, which won the Class AAAAA state championship last year after experiencing that setback, still hasn’t forgotten how it went down after falling 35-34 in the 8-AAAAA title game on the final night of the regular season at Falcon Field in 2012.

“It’s always in the back of my head how that game ended last year,” Gainesville senior quarterback Deshaun Watson said. “Right after, it was kind of heartbreaking. I wanted to win that game and go four years straight winning the region championship.”

Tonight, Gainesville and Flowery Branch and Gainesville meet again for the Region 8-AAAAA championship in Gainesville.

Last season, Watson captained the Red Elephants’ run to the state title in the weeks following the loss, while Flowery Branch was upset by North Paulding in the first round of state. 

Still, not being able to beat the archrival stung, at least a little bit.

“We had it in our hands and we let it slip away,” Watson said. “This year, we’re going to try to get the big lead again and contain them.”

Wrapping up the regular season with a big game is exactly how Gainesville coach Bruce Miller envisioned it before the season began, despite bumpy starts to the season in non-region play. The Red Elephants, the preseason No. 1 team in Class AAAAA, fell to 1-1 after a Week 2 loss to Class AAA No. 1 Buford. Flowery Branch started even slower, beginning the year 0-2 after shortcomings against Northside-Warner Robins and West Forsyth.

The two teams are a combined 14-0 since then, quickly climbing up the Region 8-AAAAA ladder.

“You could see us headed to this path of collision when they won their first 2-3 region games and we won our first 2-3 region games,” Miller said. “You could see it all pointing toward it. One loss in the region wasn’t going to put you out of it, because then it became head-to-head competition.”

The situation differs somewhat from last year, as Gainesville entered the 2012 showdown fresh off a stunning 46-41 loss to a then 2-6 Loganville team that outscored the Red Elephants 26-0 in the second half.

According to Miller, the blindsiding loss threw off the team’s mental approach to the Flowery Branch game, and they paid for it in the fourth quarter.

“We played pretty well against them (Flowery Branch), but I think the fact that we lost going into that game last year, maybe for us put a damper on it because we were thinking, ‘who are we, really?’” Miller said. “We still knew if we won that game we’d win the region, but Flowery Branch played very good and they beat us fair and square.”

The Falcons are visiting City Park Stadium for the first time since the 2009 Class AAA state semifinals, when the two teams met for the second time that year for a chance at the championship game. Headlined as a battle between two current SEC quarterbacks in Gainesville’s Blake Sims (now playing at Alabama) and Flowery Branch’s Connor Shaw (South Carolina), the Red Elephants held on for the 29-21 win in front of an overflow crowd.

The two teams then took a two-year hiatus while playing in different classifications, before reuniting last year for the first of a two-part battle between another pair of college-bound signal callers.

Watson (2,546 yards, 33 TD), the state’s all-time leading passer and a Clemson commit, has a tough Flowery Branch counterpart in Jackson McDonald, who is headed to James Madison next season. The senior dual threat has passed for 1,484 yards and 18 touchdowns, while rushing for a team-high 516 yards and another nine scores.

With both teams utilizing up-tempo spread offenses, the Falcons’ best strategy against Watson and his dangerous arsenal is simply keeping up with them on the scoreboard.

“The thing about our offense is that we’re not good at just one thing,” McDonald said. “We can run and we can throw. The offensive line keeps me clean and they drive off the ball. We’ll have to do both well Friday to put up some points.”

It only makes defensive duties more important for both sides. They’ll be the ones trying to slow down the high-speed signal callers on offense.

So far, it hasn’t been too much of an issue for either team. Gainesville leads the region with 13 points allowed per game, while Flowery Branch is a close second with 15 points allowed per game.

A monster outing for either defense may be out of the question tonight, but even one key turnover or defensive stop could go a long way toward deciding the game.

“If our guys play good and they (Gainesville) play good, it’s going to come down to the fourth quarter and who has the ball last,” Flowery Branch coach Chris Griffin said. “The team that makes the fewest mistakes is the one that’s going to have the best chance to win in the end.”

A Flowery Branch win would give the Falcons back-to-back victories against Gainesville for the first time since 2006-2007. They’re 3-7 all-time against the Red Elephants, dating back to the team’s inaugural season in 2002.

The 2007 win, a 49-38 shootout, was also at City Park Stadium. It’s the last time Flowery Branch won there.

“We’re going to have a huge crowd on our side, so they may not necessarily have an advantage,” Griffin said.

“Our team doesn’t mind going on the road. If you look at our history, we’ve gone to some very tough places and played very well.

“We have the mindset that it doesn’t matter where we play, we’re still going to line up and play football on the road.”


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