ATHENS—Before the holiday break, the Flowery Branch wrestling team never spent more than four days away from a meet.
Whether it was a dual or traditional format, if it was a big tournament in Northeast Georgia, there was a decent chance the Falcons would be there. It was strenuous on the wrestlers, but it was sure to pay off.
And it finally did. Flowery Branch brought home its first-ever area title by taking the Area 8-AAAAA crown on Saturday at Clarke Central High School in Athens.
The Falcons won three matches in the nine-team tournament, taking down perennial forces in Loganville and meet host Clarke Central on their way to the team’s first-ever state duals berth.
State duals begin Thursday and continue through Saturday at the Macon Centreplex in Macon. Flowery Branch opens the tournament at 6:15 p.m. Thursday, when the 16 qualifying Class AAAAA teams begin the first round.
“We’ve had an up and down season, but we’ve wrestled a really tough schedule, which paid off,” Falcons head coach Shane Millwood said. “When we come into an environment like this and something goes wrong, it’s ok, because we’ve been through it before. If somebody goes wrong, the next kid has to step up, and that’s what we did.”
Flowery Branch needed all the wins it could get in its championship bout against Clarke Central, which ended slightly in favor of the Falcons with a 45-32 final score.
After opening the contest with a win at 152 pounds by Chuckie Allen, Flowery Branch lost the next three matches and trailed 15-3 after four weight classes.
The Falcons added six more points with a pin by Jackie Simonds, then tied the match at 15 apiece with another pin by 220-pounder Devante King.
After taking a loss at 285 pounds, Flowery Branch evened the score again with a pin at a 106 pounds by Stefan Gale. The Falcons recorded their first lead of the match after a Clarke Central forfeit at 113 pounds and remained up 27-26 after the Gladiators’ 2012 state-qualifier Andrew Geigerich scored his team five points after an 18-3 decision at 120.
Flowery Branch scored a key win at 126 pounds on a pin by Ben Horton, but Clarke Central answered with a pin of its own at 132, putting the Falcons up by just one point and two weight classes to go.
They needed a pin by 138-pounder Zach Winter to secure the win, and they got just that when the Flowery Branch junior successfully held down Xaviess Smith for the match-clinching six points.
“The first time I had seen him wrestle was in this tournament,” Winter said. “I was a little cautious at first, but I stayed calm throughout the match and tried not to waste my energy.”
With a 39-32 Flowery Branch lead too much to overcome, the 145-pound match was forfeited by Clarke Central.
“There are no big names on Flowery Branch’s team,” Millwood said. “There’s no one who sticks out. We just wrestle as a team, and we don’t make it anything other than just wrestling. That’s all we do.”
The Falcons’ road to the area title began with a 79-0 shutout against familiar foe Gainesville, and continued with a 42-25 win over Loganville in the championship semifinals.
The Red Devils, who finished fourth in Class AAAA last season, defeated Clarke Central in the second-place match to secure their spot in Macon next week. The Gladiators will miss the state duals after back-to-back trips.
“It’s always been them and Loganville,” Millwood said. “We’ve always been second fiddle, but this year, we were able to come in as a second seed and do what we’ve done all year.”
Gainesville, competing in Class AAAAA for the first time, finished seventh overall with a 55-12 win over Cedar Shoals and losses to Flowery Branch and Heritage.
Heritage finished fourth, followed by Apalachee in fifth and Winder-Barrow in sixth. Salem placed eighth and Cedar Shoals took ninth.