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Flowery Branch baseball team focused on stringing together 'winning weeks' as it chases playoff berth
Flowery Branch's JB Bell (9) attempts to make the play at second base against North Oconee's David Wiley during the game between the teams on Wednesday, March 24 in Flowery Branch. - photo by Nathan Berg

Flowery Branch baseball coach Joey Ray is big about putting together ‘winning weeks.’

The way the baseball schedule is constructed in Region 8-4A — a three-game series spread out over a week against each opponent — makes it pretty easy to understand why. 

So far, the Falcons have had winning weeks against Cedar Shoals, East Hall and Jefferson.

The postseason is the same format with the best-of-three series every round to see who advances. 

“You win 2 out of 3 each week, you win the series,” Ray said. “You win 2 out of 3 in the playoffs, you win the series.”

The sixth-ranked Falcons (17-6, 8-4 Region 8-4A) are not a lock yet for the playoffs, but currently sit in third place with six games to go in the regular season. Flowery Branch can still jump second-place Jefferson (17-7, 11-3) in the region standings. 

The only real blemish for the Falcons was being swept by No. 1 North Oconee (19-3, 10-1) early in the region schedule. 

However, taking some losses early is not alarming to Flowery Branch’s coach, as long as it’s a learning experience. 

“We want to be playing our best when we get to May,” Ray said. 

And, yes, Flowery Branch’s coach thinks his squad is fully capable of making some noise in the postseason. Despite only having four seniors, the majority of his club is back from 2020 when the Falcons posted a 12-1 mark and were No. 1 in the state when the season ended, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We have great young men,” Ray said. “We have four seniors who have played since they were sophomores, juniors who have played since they were freshmen. They’ve played a lot of baseball together.”

One strength for the Falcons is having players who can bounce around to different positions, which has helped with injury issues and depth concerns. 

Hamstring problems have limited junior left-handed ace Jake Beaver (3-1, 0.91 ERA), but the Falcons have been aided on the mound with the solid work of sophomore Mason Compton (4-2, 2.16 ERA), Austin Hatcher (4-1, 2.19 ERA) and Aaron Attaway (2-0, two saves, 2.05 ERA). 

In addition to quality innings on the mound, Compton fills in at third base and in the outfield, and hits in the middle of the order. 

“Mason just loves to play,” Ray said. 

Senior JB Bell is hitting .453, mostly from the left side of the plate, even though he didn’t even dabble in switch-hitting until a couple of years ago. The Georgia Southern signee is also one of the best defensively where he rotates in the middle infield spots with Wofford signee Connor Larson. 

Bell started tinkering with hitting left-handed as a sophomore. Flowery Branch’s coach saw him trying to hit from the other side in the cage in practice. Instead of discouraging the move, Ray said it was good but he wouldn’t allowed to hit left-handed in a game, until he was ready. 

In 2020, Bell hit right-handed just a couple of times, setting the stage for an even better switch-hitting senior season. 

“I’m really fortunate to have two seniors who are that good in the middle of the infield,” Ray said.

Another one of the versatile athletes for Flowery Branch is junior Baxley O’Brien who plays primarily third base and outfield, but can also suit up and play catcher. 

North Georgia signee Kaleb Freeman is the Falcons’ switch-hitting catcher, who is hitting .426 on the season. 

Also, there’s junior Nick Linkowski, who is hitting .380 from the lead-off spot in the order. 

Linkowski never stepped on the varsity field until Game 2 of the first-round playoff series in 2019 against Heritage-Catoosa. 

In his first varsity experience, Linkowski finished the playoff game with three hits and has been a starter ever since. 

“Nick’s a natural hitter,” Ray said. “He barrels baseballs and I have a lot of confidence in him.”

The high marks of the region schedule, including a three-game sweep of East Hall earlier in the week, have made up for the bad taste from the North Oconee series. 

Flowery Branch’s coach isn’t going to sugarcoat the things it did wrong in those three games, but also emphasized after it was over that the Falcons could still play with anybody in the state. 

“Honestly, I think we’re the best team in the state,” Larson said. “We played horrible against North Oconee in that series and our stats weren’t good, but I know we’ll be ready when we play the Marist(s), Benedictine(s) and North Oconee(s) from across the state.”

Building that team confidence is why Flowery Branch’s coach diligently assembles a challenging non-region slate of game. This season, the Falcons have twice played Mill Creek, and single games against Grayson and North Gwinnett — all 7A programs. 

The Falcons went 2-2 in those four non-region games, but started to give the coach a sense of where everyone could play on the field and momentum for the region schedule. 

In the previous three seasons, Flowery Branch has played against bigger schools from outside the state, too. 

“I don’t want to just focus on being the best team in the region or county,” Ray said. “We want to let people know there’s a little school in Flowery Branch that can play at a high level.”

Up next, Flowery Branch faces Madison County (9-15, 7-5) next week. 

The final series of the regular season for the Falcons is April 19-23 against a scrappy Chestatee (13-11, 5-7). 

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