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High school football: Mystique of Gainesville and Flowery Branch rivalry never fades from those who played in storied series
Hall County's biggest rivalry set for 16th installment Friday in Flowery Branch, tickets are sold out
Thomas Sprague
Gainesville's Thomas Sprague blocks the punt at the Flowery Branch goal line during the 2009 Class 3A state semifinals at City Park Stadium in Gainesville. Photo courtesy Sammy Smith.

Everyone who has played in the Flowery Branch and Gainesville football rivalry has a story that further validates it being the best rivalry in Hall County this century.

These games have typically had the biggest crowds, some of the best talent on both sides and the biggest implications when it comes to the postseason.

And looking back, some former high school standouts, now full-grown adults, view the rivalry with complete reverence, while still respecting the other side.

“Man, those were some intense matchups,” said Jaybo Shaw, quarterback of the Falcons from 2004-2007 and now head coach at Rabun County High. “We knew when it was Gainesville week, it was time to show out.”

The heart-pumping emotion that this rivalry brings out swings both ways.

“That rivalry was the pinnacle of the schedule every year,” said Daunte Carr, a defensive back in 2008-2009 at Gainesville who went on to play after high school at Arkansas. “The atmosphere for the game against Flowery Branch was always electric.”

It wouldn’t be a rivalry of consequences without immensely talented players.

The Red Elephants and Falcons checked off this box every season when they played in the same classification.

On Friday, Gainesville, now in the state’s highest classification, will face Flowery Branch, a Class 4A program, in the 16th installment of the rivalry at an already-sold out Falcons Stadium. Stadium seating is capped at 40 percent, due to coronavirus precautions, but that doesn’t take anything away from the passion of this matchup.

Gainesville has won 10 of 15 meetings in the rivalry, dating back to 2002. Since 2005, it’s an even 3-3 split in the rivalry in games that determined the region or subregion champion.

“That rivalry will always be a special one,” said Brandon Keller, an offensive lineman at Flowery Branch from 2007-2010. “It doesn’t matter how many years go by, there’s still a piece of that rivalry in everyone. I’ll always cherish those memories of playing against Gainesville.”

For about a decade, Gainesville and Flowery Branch would both have rosters full of future Division-I talents, and both were almost always a lock to make it deep in the postseason. During the rivalry's heyday, both programs had players who went on to become marquee college players and each sent guys on to NFL rosters.

The biggest game of all between Gainesville and Flowery Branch took place in front of about 14,000 fans on a chilly December night in the 2009 Class 3A state semifinals at City Park Stadium.

It was a heavyweight battle, now 11 years ago, but swung back in the favor of the Red Elephants with Thomas Sprague’s blocked punt with his forearm at the Flowery Branch goal line. He also recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown, helping to secure a 29-21 win and berth in the state championship.

That game had arguably the most future Division-I players in a game in Hall County history. Top-ranked Gainesville was guided by Blake Sims, who went on to play quarterback at Alabama, while the Falcons were led by future University of South Carolina legend, Connor Shaw.

Combined, there were 11 players in that game who went on to play Division-I college football.

Red Elephants linebacker Alexander Johnson, then a junior, is now a starting middle linebacker for the Denver Broncos, while Shaw went on to play for the Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears.

In 2009, Flowery Branch was able to put on a late charge, after losing to Gainesville 49-17 only four weeks before playing in the semifinals. The Falcons were able to make the state semifinals by pulling a 35-33 against No. 2 Carver-Columbus in the quarterfinals.

For Round 2 in 2009, Gainesville knew it was playing a different Flowery Branch squad in the semifinals.

“Connor Shaw was a legend,” said the 28-year-old Sprague, who works as assistant project superintendent with Carroll Daniel Construction in Gainesville. “They were just a damn good team at Flowery Branch.”

The most peculiar season in the rivalry was three years later. In 2012, Flowery Branch wrapped up the region championship with a 35-34 win on a late fourth-quarter sack of Gainesville quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Red Elephants lost their final two regular season games before steamrolling through the Class 5A state playoffs and earned the state championship.

Great rivalries clearly come with some unusual twists.

The following season, the senior Watson guided Gainesville to a crazy back-and-forth win in a 100-point shootout against the Falcons, en route to the state semifinals against Tucker.

Jaybo Shaw said the complexion of the rivalry started to become more balanced in 2005, when the Falcons came up just short in the game against Gainesville to determine the region champion.

The next year, Flowery Branch would land its first win in this rivalry, thanks to a clever trick-play call from Lee Shaw near the Gainesville goal line. Connor Shaw, then a wide receiver, lined up in the backfield, took the handoff from his older brother on a Statue of Liberty play, then tossed it to an open Robby Boudreau in the end zone for the score.

Flowery Branch would polish off the victory with Connor Shaw’s catch in the back of the end zone, dragging his feet inbounds, after coming down with the catch from Jaybo.

In 2007, the Falcons went on to win against Gainesville, scoring 21 unanswered points in the second half.

Shaw said, he hopes this rivalry remains intact for many years to come.

“The level of competition and what it means to both schools is hard to match,” Jaybo Shaw said. “It’s a game that means a little bit more to everyone involved.

“Even though I’ll be coaching Friday, I’ll still be pulling for The Branch.”

Friday's games

Flowery Branch vs. Gainesville

Johnson vs. West Hall

North Hall vs. Hart County

East Hall vs. Franklin County

Regional events