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Flowery Branch's humble start ends in state final 6 years later
Members of Falcons winless first team now rooting for title today
Andy Espinoza of Flowery Branch is tackled by two Chestatee defenders during the inaugural football game for the first-year Flowery Branch Falcons on Aug. 30, 2002. The Falcons finished 0-10 in their first varsity season. Seven years later, they are in the state championship game today against Cairo at the Georgia Dome.

Flowery Branch band members ‘stoked’ over day in spotlight 

The Times and plans extensive coverage of Flowery Branch's trip to the championship game. See what we've got planned.

Read our ongoing Flowery Branch coverage.

In 2002 the first new public high schools in more than 15 years opened in Hall County.

To the South, Flowery Branch High, serving students along the booming Interstate-985 corridor. To the North, Chestatee High, a district roughly encompassing a swath between Dawsonville Highway and Thompson Bridge Road.

Both fielded football teams that year with big dreams and modest expectations. A winning season was a lofty goal. A playoff appearance was something most of the players knew they would never see.

Just six years later, the expectations have been surpassed and the dreams are on the brink of reality. Flowery Branch is set to play Cairo for the Class AAA state championship at 5 p.m. today at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

"You could see that everybody knew that one day we could be state champions," said Josh Watkins, a sophomore running back and linebacker on the first Flowery Branch team.

That was before he’d heard that the Falcons actually were playing for state title today.

"They’re playing in the state championship?" Watkins asked when told the news. "You’re kidding me.

"I mean, I thought that it could happen, but I didn’t think it could happen this quick."

That’s been the general reaction around the state. How did a school that was 20 years from existence the last time a Hall County team played for a football state title rise so high, so fast?

For the few who have watched each step of the program’s progression, it hasn’t seemed fast at all.

"It’s been a long time coming," said Jonathon Catledge, a Flowery Branch freshman in 2002. That first season, coach Lee Shaw — who is still the head coach — and the Falcons fielded a 44-player team, less than half the size of the 2008 roster. There were only two seniors and 10 juniors and almost no varsity experience among them.

Students in the new district had been given the choice to stay at their current high schools — in most cases Johnson or West Hall — or to hitch their hopes to the start-up in Flowery Branch.

"Our first day of practice we were pulling gear off a trailer," Catledge said. "That was our locker room."

The Falcons went 0-10 that year, losing their first game 14-13 to Chestatee and losing the rest by much more.

They didn’t win a game until the third week of the 2003 season.

"The thing that really sticks out the most from that first year is a group of guys having to overcome a lot of adversity," said Roshad Randolph, who was a junior on the 2002 team and a team captain the following year. "A lot of guys pulled from Johnson High School, a lot of guys pulled from West Hall High School, a lot of guys who hadn’t played together before or even experienced the whole varsity football thing under the lights.

"And for coach Shaw and his coaching staff to have us prepared for a 10-game varsity schedule, it was really helpful because it made us better players and better men as time went along."

Lots of players from the ’02 team credit Shaw’s leadership for the program’s recent success. Catledge said without the coach’s leadership, "we might have just given up."

Shaw, though, credits the kids.

"Those kids we had when we opened up, they came in believing," Shaw said. "They knew it was going to be hard, knew it was going to be tough. They felt like they could be here and have a fresh start or have an opportunity to play early. So there was no misconception early on. When we talked to them, we told them that it was going to be a difficult road, but one thing that they could do was be the first — the first tackle, the first touchdown, the first to do everything — and they would lay the foundation.

"And they all bought into it. It was difficult record-wise, but we built just as many memories, and we built just as strong a relationship during those first years as we are now."

Of those memories, the Falcons’ first win, 20-19 over West Hall on Sept. 19, 2003, remains one of the most cherished.

When the game ended, the fans stormed the field. The players screamed with joy and relief. The coaches cried, overcome by the same emotions.

"It’s something I’ll never forget," Randolph said. "Man, it felt great."

"You seriously would have thought that we just won the state championship," Shaw said.

Many wins have followed, and many of the players who lived through those lean years still follow the team.

Randolph estimates he’s missed only five Falcons games in the last four years. Ty Schnepper, a freshman defensive back in 2002, has only missed one game in the program’s history.

And today’s game certainly isn’t one they’re going to skip.

"I’m definitely going to the Dome," Schnepper said. "I think pretty much all of the seniors that I played with are going. We’ll probably all go together, all sit together, all yell together."

Though the 2002 freshman class went out with a trip to the Class AAA quarterfinals as seniors, most members of the 2002 team have had to settle for secondhand glory. Still, they say they’re happy to have launched a program that is 42-8 in the last four seasons after winning just six times in its first three.

"It’s just been great to sit back and watch these guys grow," Randolph said.