The Jefferson High football team enjoyed a winning tradition for the last four seasons under former coach Ben Hall.
On Friday night, he nearly handed the Dragons a loss.
Jefferson overcame a 10-point halftime deficit and staved off a late push to defeat Hall-led Flowery Branch High 35-29 at Memorial Stadium. The hard-fought game came down to a onside kick in the final minute recovered by Dragons junior Zac Corbin.
“It was emotional when we first got here, and it is now, seeing old friends and colleagues,” Hall said. “But when we got between the lines, the emotion drained out of it and our kids battled. We just need to get better at playing four quarters and closing games out.”
Hall spent eight years at Jefferson, the first four as offensive coordinator. He took over as head coach following the team’s Class 2A championship in 2012, leading the Dragons to a 44-8 mark, two region titles and an appearance in the Class 4A semifinals last season.
Dragons coach Gene Cathcart, who served as offensive coordinator under Hall and has worked with him at prior stops, praised his former colleague’s poise in his emotional homecoming.
“Ben’s an outstanding coach, one of my best friends in coaching,” Cathcart said. “He’s one of the coaches that I respect the most. I even got emotional shaking hands with him and his players after the game.”
Jefferson senior running back Colby Wood keyed the second-half surge with 148 yards and three of his team’s four scores after the break. He produced the Dragons’ go-ahead touchdown, followed by another that put the game out of reach.
The Falcons (3-1), who entered the game receiving votes in the Georgia Sports Writers Association’s Class 5A top 10 poll, got 236 yards and a score on seven catches from junior receiver Jalin Strown. Senior running back Malik Damons toughed out 114 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 32 carries.
Alexander Sanchez scored first for Flowery Branch with a 25-yard field goal on the game’s first possession. The teams traded turnovers before Jefferson senior quarterback Bryce Moore found Corbin for an 8-yard touchdown on a quick slant. The extra point, however, went awry.
Falcons sophomore Elijah Gainey (8 of 14, 256 yards, two touchdowns) led a scoring drive in response, hitting senior tight end Nick Lance for an 18-yard touchdown off of play-action. This time, Flowery Branch missed the point after.
Strown put the Falcons ahead 16-6 at halftime with a spectacular play, juking his lone defender on a short, third-down pass and racing into the end zone for an 84-yard score.
Cathcart said some of the emotions surrounding the game led him to call plays a bit too aggressively and impatiently.
“I maybe got a little too aggressive, made it a little bit too much about me and Ben, which I said I wouldn’t do,” Cathcart said. “I was coaching angry in the first half, and I told the team I was sorry.”
That realization — coupled with an adjustment in the running game — led to the Dragons (3-1), ranked No. 5 in Class 4A, outscoring Flowery Branch 29-13 after halftime.
Wood, who gained just 30 yards on seven carries in the first half, racked up 45 yards on Jefferson’s first possession of the third quarter and scored from 1 yard out on fourth and goal. He continued eating up chunks of yards as the game went on, which Cathcart attributed to a newfound commitment to the running game in the second half.
“They came back with some great adjustments and ran the counter well,” Hall said. “They attacked what we gave them, and we couldn’t stop it.”
Though the Falcons struck back with a touchdown of their own on fourth and goal, the Dragons soon seized complete control of the contest.
After Flowery Branch missed its second extra point on the night, Moore led Jefferson right back down the field, scrambling for 41 yards on third down and cutting the score to 22-20 with a 9-yard touchdown to Corbin.
The Falcons turned the ball over on downs on their next two possessions, which Wood converted into scoring runs of 1 and 8 yards, the last one coming with less than two minutes left. He finished with 178 rushing yards on 31 carries and seven receptions for 34 yards.
Flowery Branch made things interesting with a frantic drive during which Strown hauled in three big catches. Damons scored from 5 yards out with 49 seconds remaining, but Corbin snatched the onside kick out of the air to seal the close victory for Jefferson.
After outscoring their first three opponents 112-13, the Falcons tasted defeat for the first time under Hall.
If his tenure is anything like it was at Jefferson, Hall’s players won’t experience that feeling too often.
“We’ve got kids believing in each other and trusting each other,” the coach said. “When you get a group of teenagers playing together, special things can happen. … We’ve just got to work on closing out games better.”
The Falcons open Region 8-5A play at Johnson next Friday, while Jefferson travels to face Gainesville.