From the beginning, Flowery Branch High coach Ben Hall has put a point of emphasis on enjoying the moment.
The first-year coach prefers to take stress off his players, and rather stress the importance of being better the next day. Sometimes it’s easy to forget they are teenagers, after all.
That mentality has carried Flowery Branch to a state ranking and postseason relevance once again in the nine games played to date, leaving the hallways of the high school abuzz with football pride once again.
“We talked with the administration before school started, and said, ‘Any time you have a winning football season, it just makes the school year better,’” said Hall. “The kids are experiencing that in the halls, and walking a little taller, carrying themselves with confidence. It’s a pleasure to see them enjoy the process of winning football games and see the way kids are treating them in the school building. ... Just watching them grow is very enjoyable.”
In addition, the Falcons’ senior leadership has restored a sense of swagger and purpose in the locker room and holds a high team standard on the practice field in the absence of the coaching staff.
“We’ve been really confident, even before the season started,” senior tight end Nick Lance said. “And even after we started getting some wins, it just kept on building.”
Now the ninth-ranked Falcons will seek their first region championship in five seasons, when they welcome No. 3 Buford to the battlegrounds of Falcon Field for the regular-season finale at 7:30 p.m. today.
“First and foremost, it’s a great opportunity for our kids and our program,” Hall said.
The stakes will be high for the Falcons (8-1, 5-0 Region 8-5A), who also look to end the longstanding reign of their nearby foes. The Wolves (7-1, 5-0) are eyeing their fifth-straight region crown, hoping to keep that streak alive under first-year coach John Ford.
However, Flowery Branch senior defensive back Jacob Reid said Wednesday his team has treated this week’s preparation just like any other game.
“That’s true,” Hall said in agreement with Reid. “We try to maintain consistency in everything that we do, and the kids are responding well. It’s fun to watch them enjoy the season. As far as making this out to be the ‘Super Bowl,’ we’re not. ... We feel like if we play our best game we have a chance.
“Buford is very talented, and we’re gonna have to create our own breaks and take care of the football and tackle well, things we stress each and every week.”
Flowery Branch indeed has been able to generate its own momentum in recent weeks. On Oct. 13, the Falcons kept Loganville out of the end zone while relying on two Alexander Sanchez field goals in a gritty 6-3 win. They pitched a second-half shutout against Clarke Central after trailing the Gladiators at the break — the first time all season Hall’s team has been handed a halftime deficit — two weeks ago.
The defense held the Gladiators’ offense to 34 yards while adding a Reid fumble recovery for a touchdown in that span. Senior running back Malik Damons (1,144 yards, 18 touchdowns) rushed for 174 yards and three touchdowns in the 32-14 win.
“Honestly, we didn’t know how the kids would respond, coming out of the locker room,” Hall said “ ... We were able — for the first time this year — to generate our own momentum. And it wasn’t easy, and it was a good thing for us to see. And you know, we’re gonna have to be able to do that Friday night: Create our own breaks and play when it’s not easy.”
Last year’s Class 5A runner-up Buford has had little trouble in that regard. The Wolves have outscored region opponents 269-7 behind Anthony Grant (50 carries, 339 yards, nine touchdowns), Christian Turner (357 yards, four touchdowns) and quarterback Aaron McLaughlin (810 passing yards, seven touchdowns, three interceptions.
Buford has also tied a school record with four-straight shutouts, not surrendering a single point in nearly 17 quarters (195:02 of game-clock time) dating back to a Sept. 29 win over Clarke Central.
To snap that streak, Hall said his team will have to “appreciate every yard” earned against a Buford defense that has held opponents to nine first downs and 187 yards per contest this year.
“This is not a game where you’re gonna have many cheap yards,” Hall said.
The one-two punch of Damons and fellow senior running back Malik Drayton has been highly effective to date. In region play, the workhorse Damons has grinded out three 100-yard performances with nine touchdowns, with Drayton adding 501 yards and eight scores from scrimmage — including a season-high 249 yards in a win over Cedar Shoals.
“With our style of play, we like to generate 20 first downs each game, and if you do that, you’re controlling the ball and you’re controlling the game clock and you’re keeping your defense off the field,” Hall said. “We’ve done a decent job this year of playing our style of ball.”
Regardless of the outcome, the Falcons will be guaranteed a No. 2 seed and at least one home playoff game, their first since they last qualified for the playoffs in 2013.
But a win on the team’s senior night would be much sweeter.
“It means a lot, getting to play at home, senior night,” Reid said. “We’ve been together since freshman year — all of us. ... It went by fast, but having Buford at home is the thing. ... We have the best student section, fans.”