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Game of the week: Flowery Branch's Ben Hall braces for first encounter with Jefferson High since coaching departure
Falcons first-year head coach has Falcons ready for biggest test yet
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Jefferson quarterback Colby Clark carries the ball for the Dragons Friday night during the first half of last year's game with Flowery Branch at The Branch. - photo by Scott Rogers

Get prepared for Week 5 of the high school football season with breakdowns of every matchup for area teams.

Come 7:30 p.m. tonight, Ben Hall will have the best view in the house under the lights of Memorial Stadium. Only this time it’ll be from the opposite sideline.

When his Flowery Branch High Falcons (3-0) meet Jefferson High (2-1) for a non-region showdown, it will also be a homecoming for Hall, who led the Dragons to much success in the previous eight seasons, including four as the head coach.

“This is one of those games that — I’m not gonna deny the fact that it even crossed my mind when I took the job here — I knew I was gonna have to play Jefferson, and that’s not something that you wanna do,” Hall said of his emotional return to the school. “I made a lot of fond memories, a lot of friends at that place and coached every one of those kids. And at the end of the day, we have to line those teams up and play the game and see how we are.” 

Hall went 44-8 and carried the Dragons to playoff appearances in each of his four seasons, including the Class 4A semifinals in 2016. Within months of taking the job at Flowery Branch, Hall has the program off to its best start since 2011, during which the Falcons went 11-2 and reached the third round of the state playoffs.

Jefferson is now headed by former quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, Gene Cathcart, also once the head coach at Habersham Central from 2003-2008. The Raiders were 40-27 with four playoff appearances that included two runs to the Class 4A quarterfinals under Cathcart.

Flowery Branch fell in the previous meeting when the Dragons recorded a 33-0 shutout at Falcon Field last fall. A win Friday night for Flowery Branch would not only even the series, but could potentially help them sneak inside the top 10 of the Georgia Sports Writers Association’s Class 5A state rankings.

“It’s gonna be a good measuring stick for our program, and it will be a big win for our program if we’re able to come out on top,” Hall said. “And with Jefferson, they’re gonna play like they always do. Those kids always play hard, and they never give up and that’s why they’re one of the best programs in the state.”

Also a close friend of Hall for much of their careers, Cathcart is not at all surprised by the Falcons’ promising start under new leadership. 

Hall and Cathcart share a strong bond and history stretching as far back as their college coaching years in South Carolina. When Cathcart’s availability became known to Hall in 2015, he immediately jumped on the opportunity appoint one of his closest friends to oversee the Jefferson offense. Over the last two seasons, Jefferson averaged 35 points and over 400 yards a contest. 

“That program’s in great hands with Gene leading the charge, and this is one of those games that we just wanna get it over with,” Hall said. “There’s animosity there, because a coach leaves — that happens with every coaching change. But at the end of the day, it’s gonna be a quality ball game with two quality teams going at it, two friends coaching together and when it’s over, it probably won’t happen again, to be honest with you.”

The feeling from Cathcart is mutual. Luckily for them, they won’t be the ones suiting up. As Cathcart joked, neither have any eligibility left.

“As much as our friendship means to us and both of us will be competing like tooth-and-nail, kind of like a brotherly fight, to see who will come out on top,” Cathcart said. “We both expect that, will expect nothing less of each other.”

On top of an exciting atmosphere, fans should be treated with a game of “great local flavor,” according to Cathcart, and should see a similar brand of football on both sides. The two teams showcase strong running games as well as physicality in the trenches. 

In the three games under Hall’s watch, the Falcons outscored opponents 112-13, while the defense rendered opponents scoreless for 10 of 12 quarters.

The “thunder-and-lightning” running back tandem, as Hall put it, of seniors Malik Damons (458 yards, seven touchdowns) and Malik Drayton (251 yards, five touchdowns) bring complementary styles to the backfield behind a sturdy offensive line. Sophomore quarterback Elijah Gainey (24 of 43, 348 yards passing, three touchdowns), coupled with deep threat Jalin Strown (11 catches, 170 yards, two touchdowns), has the potential to wow in the passing game as well.

Cathcart said while it doesn’t make it more difficult to face Hall’s similar style, this type of game will go down as one squad making fewer mistakes. 

“Certainly they do a great job of mixing formations and having their big running back and using their smaller quicker back to put those kids in a chance to be successful,” the coach said. “They throw the ball off play-action very, very well. Defensively they blitz more than the teams he’s had in the past. 

“But you know, (Flowery Branch defensive coordinator Bill) Ballard does a very good job with his defense, and they’re doing what they have to do put their kids in a chance to be successful.”

Cathcart said Jefferson typically uses the aerial attack more than in years past. It is still best not taking any chances against Dragons star running back Colby Wood, who has rushed for 393 yards and eight scores for the Dragons behind quarterback Bryce Moore (18 of 41, 327 yards, three touchdowns, one interception) as part of an early 2-1 mark.

Hall stressed the importance of execution at the line of scrimmage, ball discipline and not giving up the big play on defense against a squad that takes full advantage of Wood’s abilities. The big distraction of Tropical Storm Irma has also played a huge factor for most teams this week due to school closings and a shortened week of preparation.

“My goal is to get our kids ready to play,” Hall said. “Jefferson is established. And we’ve won three ball games. So we have to have a good showing, and we don’t know how the kids are going to respond — we’ve had a week full of distractions, and kids without power and not being able to go to school all week. 

“Hopefully we’re able to narrow our focus and play our best against a very good team because it’s gonna take our best to have a chance.”

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