This time it’s going to be different.
That’s the overwhelming sentiment surrounding both the Gainesville and Flowery Branch football programs as the two prepare for tonight’s Class AAA semifinal showdown in City Park.
This duel for the Georgia Dome features the top-ranked Red Elephants (13-0) and the underdog Falcons, who last saw each other just four Fridays ago in a game that Gainesville won in convincing fashion.
“They just whipped us” Flowery Branch coach Lee Shaw said of the 49-17 loss to Gainesville on Nov. 6. “I can sit here and make excuses all day, but the bottom line is they beat us that night.”
“Going into that game we knew that they were the best team that we were going to face.”
Since then, the Falcons (10-3) have faced and defeated three higher-seeded opponents, which makes Gainesville coach Bruce Miller a little nervous about tonight’s game.
“It’s a scary feeling knowing we have to play them again,” Miller said. “We have to get the kids over the fact of what the score was this last time and that this game is totally different with totally different implications.”
On the line is a berth in the state championship game, and facing a cross-county school adds to the already intense magnitude.
“If I wasn’t competitive I’d say I didn’t want another shot,” said coach Shaw of facing Gainesville again. “But I want another shot, and our players want another shot.
“Rarely in life do you get second chances,” he added. “This second chance happens to be to get to the Dome, so what more can you ask for?”
Not much if you're Falcons senior quarterback Connor Shaw, who said playing against another county school with a berth in the state title game on the line is a chance of a lifetime.
“It’s really unheard of,” said Shaw, who has 2,899 yards passing and 29 touchdowns this year. “I’ve never heard of two teams in the same county and the same region that played each other in the regular season meet up in the semifinals.
“It’s pretty awesome.”
Gainesville’s Thomas Sprague, who is one of the several Red Elephants responsible for slowing down the Shaw-led offense of Flowery Branch, seconds that statement.
“It’s gonna be intense,” said the senior linebacker who leads Gainesville with 171 tackles. “All of Hall County is probably going to be there.”
One person that Miller wishes wasn’t there was Connor Shaw, who has led his team to seven consecutive road victories in the playoffs, with the majority of those wins coming in dramatic fashion.
“As long as they have No. 14, the game is never out of reach,” said Miller referring to Falcons quarterback Connor Shaw. “He just makes things happen over and over.
“If Connor would miss the bus I’d be extremely happy,” Miller added jokingly. “In fact, I’ve got a taxi that’ll take him south of Atlanta until about 10:30 p.m.”
What Miller doesn’t know is that his coaching counterpart would be able to pick up his son on his way to tonight’s game. After all, with all the success Flowery Branch has had traveling hundreds of miles during the playoffs, coach Shaw is thinking of taking a detour on his way to City Park.
“I may hit (Interstate) 285 for a loop,” coach Shaw joked.
With all seriousness, both coaches know what tonight’s game means, and that each squad is a stark contrast of what was on display in Week 10.
“When we played them they were trying to figure out who they were on defense,” Miller said. “They had just gone through the barrage at West Forsyth and as coaches, I’m sure they were like, ‘what will work?’
“The lineup they tried against us, that was the first time they tried it and I thought they played extremely well against us.”
So too did coach Shaw, but he has liked how his defensive unit has played since that game even more.
“Our confidence level is much greater,” Shaw said. “These past three weeks we’ve played against some of the top talent in the nation, and we’ve played them and beat ‘em.
“We’ve seen some of the best, so now going into the Gainesville game, I don’t think there’s that factor any more.”
But Shaw also is aware that Gainesville still has a wealth of talent on defense and offense, a unit led by quarterback Blake Sims, who has 2,871 yards of total offense and 45 touchdowns this year.
“I expect that they’ll play hard and that they’ll play their best game,” Shaw said.
Gainesville will need to in order to slow down a Flowery Branch offense that has suddenly turned its focus from outscoring the opposition, to controlling the clock and slowing the game down.
“You got to figure out a way to get a stop and get the ball back,” Miller said. “I don’t know if you stop them, but you can slow them down.
“They’re such a good football team and defensively they have gotten so much better.”
Which is just one of the reasons why tonight’s game will be different. The other reason doesn’t need an explanation.
“I think there’s more on the line for this game,” Connor Shaw said. “We realize that to get back to the Dome, we have to go through Gainesville.”
And the Red Elephants know that to reach the Dome, they have to go through Flowery Branch.
“We got to come out ready to play because we know Flowery Branch is coming to play,” Sims said. “I’d love to win this game for my teammates and for the community because they saw how hard we worked this year.”
That same community will make up only a portion of the attendees at City Park tonight, as football fans throughout the county are preparing to witness what could be the biggest game in Hall County history.
“I just think City Park is going to be unreal,” Miller said. “This is a great opportunity for the county and what bigger game could you have right here, right now.”