As Flowery Branch High put a wrap on its regular season last Friday with a win against Denmark, second-year football coach Ben Hall reminded his postseason-bound Falcons of a message he delivered to the program nearly two years ago.
It was that the days of merely celebrating a playoff berth are over. The Falcons are in it to celebrate playoff wins.
Hall’s message to expect success on-and-off the field still floods the hallways of the school and the Falcons’ locker room. And those that remain from the 2016 squad, which went from a losing program to bringing Flowery Branch its first playoff victory since 2011 the following season, are no longer surprised to see the message still come to life.
“It’s a feeling I don’t ever want to get rid of, for sure,” said senior Matthew Porter, a four-year starter on the Flowery Branch offensive line.
Ranked in the top-10 for much of 2018 and now in the playoffs for the second-straight season, there’s no reason for the ninth-ranked Falcons (8-2) to re-visit the past.
“I feel like last year was our year to kind of get adjusted, and this year we came in expecting to win,” Porter added. “And when we expect to win, we do win … And it’s just changed the mentality of this program.”
Even the small hurdles along the way didn’t deter Flowery Branch from eventually clinching the No. 3 seed in the Class 4A tournament by the end of the season.
Hall’s Falcons experienced a discouraging stretch of games where players at several key positions went down with injuries in conjunction with suffering back-to-back losses to last year’s Class 4A finalists: defending state champion Blessed Trinity and runner-up Marist. Instead of bowing out, other players relished the opportunity to showcase their worth.
It’s a little like those Atlanta Falcons at Flowery Branch headquarters, right across the street from the high school.
After experiencing an injury epidemic itself, Atlanta has flipped a 1-4 start into a .500 record and is still in the NFC playoff hunt.
Coach Hall laughed when he said he didn’t think their injury bug was contagious.
“Coaches talk about having a “next man up” mentality, and if you truly believe then you can’t treat it any other way,” Hall said. We’re not gonna say, ‘well so-and-so’s’ out and so-and-so’s out. This is what needs to be done.’ We just plug the next guy in there and expect him to do his job. And honestly, the kids are excited about the opportunity.”
Junior defensive back Grant Lackey felt that type of adversity brought this particular group even closer.
“We have a bunch of guys in the locker room that we trust to go in there and make plays,” Lackey said. “Trusting everybody’s ability really helps us get behind each other and play well as a team.”
While acknowledging his team is in a healthier state, Hall confirmed that the Falcons will be without the talents of two starters for Friday’s first-round matchup with No. 2 seed Ridgeland. Hall ruled out running back Jaizen Ellingham this week, while senior defensive lineman Ethan McKay (four sacks), the team’s sack leader alongside senior Jack Dodson, is done for the year.
Regardless, nothing has been altered from a preparation standpoint to get ready for the Panthers (7-3), who too reached the second round last season and boast plenty of speed on both sides of the ball.
This opening-round contest is the only matchup with two ranked opponents in Class 4A to open the postseason. This is also the third-ever meeting between the programs and first since 2009.
The Falcons face a Ridgeland offense that has progressed significantly after a season-opening loss to Class 3A’s top-ranked Calhoun, according to Hall. Since a switch to the spread attack in the offseason, the Panthers (37 points per game) are ranked seventh in scoring for the Class 4A.
The Panthers are piloted by three-year starter Tanner Hill (922 yards, 12 touchdowns) at quarterback and have weapons at other skill positions as well. Wideout and Division I prospect Stephon Walker (6-foot, 180 pounds), Azavier Blackwell in the slot and running back Jordan Blackwell (963 yards, 13 touchdowns) add extra gears to this attack.
They’ll still have to go through a Flowery Branch defense that currently ranks sixth in the classification for points allowed (12.6) and has only surrendered 20 or more points once this season — a 21-20 overtime loss to Blessed Trinity on Oct. 12.
The always-balanced pro set of the Falcons is also seemingly back to full-strength at quarterback with junior Elijah Gainey (1,770 passing yards, 18 touchdowns), and has received quite the boost from the offensive line since the Blessed Trinity game, according to Porter.
With gametime temperatures dipping as low as 35 degrees Friday, Hall stressed the importance of limiting mistakes on special teams, while not giving up the big play on defense as crucial.
Porter, who has played every down like its his last this season, doesn’t plan to change his mentality as he and the Falcons hope to keep the momentum going in the playoffs.
Hall said he plans to keep things as routine as possible leading up to kickoff. Lackey and Porter said there should be a little cinematic entertainment too for the three-hour charter bus ride to Rossville.
“Finding Nemo” may be on the list, joked Porter. “Remember the Titans” was certainly talked about too, said Lackey.
But as fun as that sounds, it doesn’t seem like anything can distract them from the task at hand.