When Ben Hall addressed the Flowery Branch High football team during his first day on the job, Tyler Blaylock and his teammates were understandably skeptical of their new coach’s message.
The Falcons had recently wrapped up a 3-7 year, their third straight without a playoff berth. Flowery Branch wasn’t too far removed from its first losing season since 2004, the resignation of its head coach and a plummet to lows the program hadn’t experienced since its early years.
Naturally, the players weren’t totally buying Hall’s promises of an immediate turnaround and playoff appearance.
“After a 3-7 season, it’s hard to really believe that you can turn things around completely, especially with all the seniors and starters we lost,” said Blaylock, a senior linebacker. “We thought we could maybe change things a bit, but definitely not to that extent.
“He was talking about turning it around and making the playoffs, and at that point it just didn’t seem possible.”
Yet here the Falcons stand, playoff participants on the fringe of the Class 5A top 10.
Hall has engineered a sharp turnaround for Flowery Branch (8-2), which hosts Kell in a first-round playoff showdown at 7:30 p.m. today at Falcon Field. This is exactly where Hall envisioned his team would be months ago, even if some of own players had trouble believing it.
“I told them to expect success, and not just on the game field. I was talking about in the classroom and in their personal lives, as well,” he said. “ … They were unsure at first, but they’re great kids, and we have a great community here. Everyone has really bought into what we’re trying to do.”
After four hugely successful seasons at the helm of Jefferson’s program, Hall quickly reshaped the Falcons’ culture.
Players said their new coach is more of a disciplinarian, one who refuses to let even little infractions slide. He also introduced an almost entirely new staff, transformed the team’s spread offense into a run-heavy attack and laid the groundwork for a play-making defense.
But perhaps the most important thing Hall installed isn’t apparent in the Xs and Os.
“He instituted confidence in us and gave us a winning mentality,” Blaylock said. “When we come out to practice, our mentality is that we’re going to go and win the game that week. Before, winning was just something we were hopeful would happen. It was never certain.”
Those practices are also typically shorter and more efficient, players said, leading to the type of performances that made Flowery Branch Class 5A’s top vote-getter outside the most recent Georgia Sports Writer Association top 10 poll.
“We’re not getting run into the dirt every practice,” senior offensive lineman Dakota Little said. “There are harder practices, then medium practices, so it kind of eases us into the game.
“We do a lot of fundamental work. It’s not all just the physical side. We feel like we’re mentally prepared for every game we play.”
The results back him up.
All but one of the Falcons’ wins have come by 14 or more points, and their two losses were against some of the best teams in the state. First was a 35-29 loss at Class 4A No. 9 Jefferson, then came a 42-7 defeat to No. 3 Buford in the de facto Region 8-5A title game last week.
Despite the lopsided score, No. 2 playoff seed Flowery Branch trailed by just 7 points at halftime and was never really out of the contest until the fourth quarter. Hall said his players have put that game behind them as they prepare to face third-seeded Kell (5-5).
“The kids generated a lot of their own confidence and momentum from that game.” the coach said. “We were right there with them late into the third quarter.”
That’s the kind of team Hall has built in less than one year at Flowery Branch. He credited his 28 seniors for embracing and adapting to his philosophy rather than pushing back against a new voice in their final season.
But Blaylock said the Falcons actually craved that kind of coaching and that many players had fully bought into Hall’s message before the season even started. Some seniors were even willing to switch positions, like Nick Lance moving from quarterback to tight end and Little transitioning from defense to offense.
“I was sold on it in mid-June,” Little said. “They took me from defense and converted me to offense. They were able to do it in such a short amount of time, so I knew they’d be able to work wonders for the team.”
Hall’s staff has done just that, and now Flowery Branch is in position for its first playoff win since 2011. Luckily for the Falcons, their coach won at least one postseason game each of his four years at Jefferson, most recently taking the Dragons to the semifinals.
Kell also advanced that far last season and possesses an explosive offense led by junior quarterback Evan Conley. Flowery Branch will counter with Class 5A’s 10th-best scoring defense (14.7 points per game) and a clock-eating run game.
The Falcons’ greatest asset, however, might just be the coach who defied the odds to set this turnaround season in motion.
“Every coach has to believe in his own kids first, and I truly believed we had the makings of a good team,” Hall said. “You can’t fool high school boys. They saw how much we believed in them and they started believing in themselves.”
Get prepared for the first round of the high school football playoffs with breakdowns of every matchup for area teams.