No, Saturday’s Class AAA championship game didn’t go the way Flowery Branch football fans wanted.
But the final loss to Cairo aside, it was, to say the least, a season that the Falcons and their followers will never forget. Even if the team goes on to become the next Buford High and win 10 more state titles in the years to come, this year always will be special.
The reasons are varied, part of a storyline that a fiction writer could have penned in one of those inspirational, beat-the-odds, rah-rah sports movies that most real fans think are too cheesy to be realistic.
Take the school itself. The doors to Flowery Branch High opened just six years ago last August, barely time for the first generation of students to move through to graduation. The football team took the field for the first time in fall of 2002 and promptly lost all 10 of its games, including its inaugural Expansion Bowl battle against fellow first-year school Chestatee.
In the next few years, Coach Lee Shaw slowly built a team that became competitive. The school administration showed patience with Shaw through the lean years, and the progress began to show as the program started its ascent.
The team’s two dozens seniors began their run as freshmen in 2005 and helped the team reach the state playoffs the last four seasons. Yet the team entered the 2008 campaign with only eight returning starters from last year’s 9-2 squad.
The season began somewhat ominously with a loss at Stephens County. But then came eight straight victories before a season-ending loss to Gainesville that sent the Falcons on the road for the playoffs.
But that road, however long, turned out to be just like home. With legions of fans following them throughout, the Falcons won four straight road playoff games, an unheard-of feat at the high school level.
If you plot the team’s travels in the playoffs, it would look like a four-pointed star reaching out hundreds of miles in four directions, with Atlanta and the Georgia Dome in the middle.
It started with a trip northeast and back to Toccoa, where the Falcons avenged their opening loss to Stephens County with a 49-21 win.
Then to the northwest for round two, where they beat Ridgeland 21-14 in Rossville with a last-minute touchdown pass on a freezing cold night.
Then down to the southeast with a 35-17 win over Baldwin in Milledgeville. Then to the southwest, where the defense stepped up for a 28-0 shutout of LaGrange to earn the state finals berth in the Dome against Cairo.
The final distance the team covered was around 1,000 miles round-trip, an odyssey of football excitement that everyone will remember fondly for years to come.
A team from Hall County had not reached a state final since Gainesville did so in 1982. None of the schools in the county system had gone this far, North Hall the latest to reach the semifinals with their trip to the Dome last year.
The storyline for this drama included a cast of characters to remember. It starts with the Shaw family, patriarch Lee who has guided the program from day one as its only head coach. That continuity is clearly the key to success in sports at any level. He even has kept his offensive and defensive coordinators, Chris Griffin and Shaun Conley, for all seven years.
Principal Mark Coleman and athletics director Shannon Benton have given Shaw the chance to build a foundation that paid off this year. Schools that change coaches every few years have to revamp their schemes, their strategies and their goals, making success a moving target. Those who stick with the right people are able to immerse players in one system, which creates the team-first concept that carried the Falcons so far.
That sense of patience and continuity has paid off for the school’s athletic program in general as well. The boys cross country team won its first state title this fall, and Flowery Branch has tasted success in several other sports in its short history.
Shaw’s success also has been fueled by his own progeny. First came his son and quarterback Jaybo Shaw, whose running and passing skills led the Falcons to their first three state berths, and himself to a promising college career at Georgia Tech.
This year, younger brother Connor Shaw took over at quarterback after serving as Jaybo’s top receiving target the past few years. He passed for more than 2,000 yards this season and 22 touchdowns and rushed for more than 900 yards and 10 more scores, an amazing season at any level. During the playoffs, he has coolly led the Falcon offense on numerous clutch scoring drives with his passing and running, attracting the attention of top college programs.
There is star running back Daniel Drummond, who was hampered by a shoulder injury as the playoffs began. But like a character in the movie, he came off the bench to rush for three second-half touchdowns in the win over Baldwin, then ran wild for 258 yards and two TDs against LaGrange.
Those are just the guys who get to carry the ball into the end zone, but their path is cleared by many others on the line and supported by defense, special teams and a talented crew of assistant coaches. The Falcons are a team in every sense, a close-knit group that looked inward and rallied behind their own character and heart during the regular season and a gauntlet of road trips that would make a lesser team fold.
Let’s not forget the other schools that enjoyed success this year. Buford won its fifth title of the decade and second straight, an amazing accomplishment by Coach Jess Simpson and the Wolves.
And we offer a tip of the cap to the other teams from our area that made it to the playoffs, including Gainesville, North Hall, Riverside, Jefferson and Commerce.
All of these teams, their players, coaches and support staff, along with the bands, cheerleaders and others who help make Friday nights so special, have made their schools and communities proud with their efforts. We salute them all on a great year.