As Zander Sechrist worked from the mound against Veterans High on Wednesday, May 9, the sophomore left-hander felt like he was in a movie.
He was pitching in Game 2 of the Flowery Branch High baseball team’s first-ever state quarterfinal series, an experience that flooded him with a level of intensity and adrenaline normally reserved for the big screen.
Despite the mounting pressure, Sechrist helped the Falcons script a Hollywood ending with a complete-game three-hitter that secured the series sweep and extended their historic run.
“It was fun and intense,” said fellow sophomore southpaw Andrew Armstrong, who tossed a complete-game shutout in Game 1 of the quarterfinals. “There were definitely more distractions, but it was so exciting to get the win and move on.”
Flowery Branch hopes this week’s sequel will be just as good — especially as it braces for an all-area series that will surely attract droves of spectators.
The third-seeded Falcons will clash with No. 2 seed Buford for a best-of-three semifinal series, starting with a doubleheader at 3 p.m. Tuesday, May 15, at Gerald McQuaig Field in Buford. Though Flowery Branch (22-16) lost both regular-season games against its Region 8-5A rival, coach Joey Ray wants his players to embrace the fact that their path to the state title runs through a familiar foe.
“I think it’s good for us to look back on those first two games and learn from some of the things that we did wrong,” Falcons senior shortstop Anthony Grutadaurio said. “But we also have to take it as a new game. That’s what’s fun about baseball: Anything can happen.”
Indeed, the last two remaining area teams were thrown for a loop a day before first pitch when the threat of inclement weather forced them to move Game 1 up by two hours.
But the pair’s mere presence in the semifinals guarantees the region will have a representative in next week’s state championship series, which could be another rematch if top-seeded Loganville advances.
The Region 8-5A champion Red Devils, who split their regular-season series with Flowery Branch in March, face fellow No. 1 seed Starr’s Mill in the other semifinal today.
While playing in a rugged region that features all but one state semifinal squad surely toughened up the Falcons, Ray said their practice habits and non-region schedule against tough opponents in a few big venues also prepared them for their playoff push.
That, and the message Flowery Branch’s first-year coach has preached since Day 1.
“I kind of started from scratch here, but I always talked about what’s expected of the kids,” Ray said. “I honestly believed and expected we’d be able to get this far. The messaging was different, so I think the kids were a little overwhelmed at first by my level of expectations.
“But after we won in each playoff round, I think it really started to set in for them. They realized, ‘Our coaches aren’t just telling us this. They actually believe in us.’”
The Falcons’ belief steered them through three road series, beginning with sets against second-seeded Villa Rica and No. 1 seed Arabia Mountain that both required three games. Then Flowery Branch swept Veterans, another top seed, with wins of 3-0 and 3-1.
But even with a five-game winning streak to close the regular-season, Ray couldn’t point to a single turning point that sent the Falcons down their historic path.
Unlike the teams he coached at Milton — which won a 2013 state championship, finished as state runner-up in 2014 and claimed five region titles under Ray’s guidance — his current squad never provided a defining moment or game that convinced him of its potential.
Instead, looking back on it now, Ray sees a gradual process centered around daily improvement in a season of ups and downs.
“He came in expecting us to win, and that was definitely easy for him to just say,” said Flowery Branch senior right fielder Blake Coxworth. “But he bought into it and made us work for it every single day. That gave us a lot of confidence.”
Now the Falcons must face a team that’s likely as confident as any in the state.
Buford (26-11), which hasn’t lost in nearly a month, cruised into the semifinals by demolishing its first three playoff opponents. The Wolves have won their six tournament contests by an average of seven runs a game while scoring nine or more runs four times.
Flowery Branch got a taste of Buford’s skill in April with losses of 14-2 and 6-1, but the Falcons aren’t intimidated by a rematch on the semifinal stage.
“There’s no pressure on us because nobody really expected us to get here,” Flowery Branch pitcher JC Sewell said. “They already beat us twice this year, so we don’t have much to lose.”
No matter how the teams perform, there will likely be a large crowd on hand to see how their semifinal series shakes out.
Coxworth, who also played basketball for Flowery Branch, expects the turnout to resemble that of the annual Lanierland tournament, while Grutadaurio hopes his team can feed off the crowd’s energy.
“These two teams are so close together. Our districts basically bump into each other,” Ray said. “There will be people and kids from all over Gwinnett County and Hall County, and probably even some from the Gainesville schools, that come out to see us.”