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Falcons reload as surprise contender
FLOWERY BRANCH — Prior to the start of the opening game of the 2009 baseball season , Flowery Branch coach Jimmy Lawler filled out his lineup card and scratched his head. He had no idea what his team would be after losing 10 players from last year’s team that won the Region 7-AAA championship.

“We felt that this would be somewhat of a rebuilding year on the mound, at the plate and defensively,” Lawler said Wednesday.

“We didn’t take into consideration the amount of work that some of these guys would put in the offseason, how much physically stronger they got. It’s kind of been a surprise for us.”

What a surprise it’s been.

The Falcons (20-5) started the year 2-0 and after losing three straight, have won 18 of their last 20, including eight of nine down the stretch that helped them secure the No. 2 seed in the Class AAA playoffs.

“You have to believe that when you step on the field, you’re as good as the competition,” Lawler said. “That’s something we’ve seen all year.”

Junior outfielder Brad Stone saw it before the season began.

“I knew coming into it we’d be pretty good and that we’d be under the radar,” said Stone, one of the few holdovers from last year’s title team. “I knew it wasn’t going to be a problem winning with the new guys.”

That’s obvious if you look at the statistics of some of those ‘new guys.’

Junior James Mills, who split time between JV and varsity last year and will start Game 1 against Oconee County on Friday, posted a 6-1 record this year and hit .380. Senior James Wilson, who transferred to Flowery Branch late in the 2008 season, hit .558 with 14 doubles and 37 RBIs and went 4-1 as the team’s third starter. And junior Cory Sanderson had a breakout year, batting .354 with three home runs. Lawler also attributed the team’s success to players like Robby Boudreau, Jimmy Fitzgerald and Matt Pilgrim, who went 7-1 for Flowery Branch this season.

“With losing so many people, everybody stepped up and did their part,” Mills said. “I heard that there were a lot of people doubting us, and I think it motivated a lot of us.”

Not only did the doubters fire up the Falcons, but the chance to get some playing time fueled several of the players.

“Losing all those seniors made some of these guys feel like they had an opportunity to play,” Lawler said. “You want to compete and be the man at that position, and that says a lot about their winning attitude.”

These Falcons wanted to play so badly that a few of them decided to change positions. While he wouldn’t single out any of those players, Lawler said that each one of them had a big impact on the season.

“We have a team this year that anyone in the lineup is capable of getting that big hit,” Lawler said. “We’re not relying on one guy.”

In 2008, the Falcons relied heavily on Patrick Henry, their ace on the mound and cleanup-hitting shortstop, but this year is different.

“Just because one player is gone didn’t mean that our season was over with,” Wilson said.

Wilson filled in nicely for the departed Henry, whose now playing at Valdosta State, and for the senior from Florida it was all because the team welcomed him with open arms.

“There was no pressure at all, I just came out and fit right in,” he said. “At the beginning of the season it was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but with this being my senior year I kind of wanted more than that. I soon found out that all of us were on the same page.”

With their win goal of 20 reached and another berth in the state playoffs accomplished, this new group of Falcons hope to duplicate last year’s first-round win.

“I feel like we’re playing as good as we have all year,” Lawler said. “I think we have momentum going into the playoffs and I think having the No. 2 seed will add to that momentum.

“We have to take that momentum and play with a lot of enthusiasm,” he added. “We have to play with a lot of emotion and hopefully things start off good for us and we can build off that.”
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