ATHENS – The Flowery Branch wrestling team couldn’t defend its area crown, but there’s still an opportunity for improvement at the state level.
The Falcons clinched their second straight state duals appearance by placing second in Saturday’s Area 8-AAAAA Duals, falling to Clarke Central 47-28 in the tournament championship.
Flowery Branch, last year’s area champion, went 2-1 on the day to secure the runner-up position. The Falcons advance to state duals next week in Macon.
“The good thing about state duals is that we were there last year,” Falcons coach Shane Millwood said. “We’re not going to go in as a No. 1 seed this time and get that favorable match, but anything can happen, and I think we’ll be a lot stronger come Monday.”
Flowery Branch finished 1-2 in last year’s state duals, winning the opening round before being eliminated in the consolation bracket with back-to-back losses.
It was the first-ever trip for the Falcons, which have sent several wrestlers to state traditional tournaments over the past decade but has yet to capture a team title.
Getting a little bit closer to a duals title is the next goal on the team’s checklist.
“I think we not only build on that, but I think we can exceed those expectations because of the experience we got last year,” Millwood said.
Flowery Branch clinched a spot in the Class AAAAA state duals meet with some help from a GHSA technicality.
As the second-place team, the Falcons normally would be challenged by the consolation bracket winner to determine a true second-place team, which would earn the second state duals berth. But in Saturday’s case, third-place Loganville was unable to force this challenge because it had already competed in five matches that day, and its only loss was not to the area champion. The Red Devils lost to fourth-place Gainesville earlier in the day.
“I feel sorry for Loganville – they didn’t get to challenge for true second,” Millwood said.
Flowery Branch almost earned the area title itself after taking a 22-18 lead through seven matches in the finals. But three straight wins by Clarke Central at 138, 145 and 152 pounds gave the Gladiators a 31-22 lead with four matches left.
Clarke Central won three of those four – two by pin – to secure the area title and an area duals berth after just missing the cut last year, when the team placed third.
“It’s great to be back,” Clarke Central coach Tim Stoudenmire said. “With the lack of experience and youth on this team, for us to be headed to state duals is a privilege and honor. We feel real good about where we are.”
Flowery Branch won five matches in the finals, with pinfalls earned by Davante King (285 pounds), Ronald Link (113), Zach Winter (160) and Stephen Kercher (132) Nolan Alspach won on a 10-2 decision at 126.
“As a coach, I’m very proud of how the kids fought,” Millwood said. “We were in the match, but I just have to do a better job as a coach getting ready for those scenarios. I put that one on me.”
The Falcons reached the finals with a first-round win over Winder-Barrow and a victory over Heritage in the semifinals.
Gainesville, which finished seventh at area duals last season, improved by leaps in bounds with its fourth-place finish this year.
The Red Elephants almost finished higher. They were tied 36-36 with Loganville in the consolation finals, forcing officials to utilize tiebreaking criteria to determine a winner. The Red Devils finally won on the fourth criteria with seven match wins over Gainesville’s six.
Gainesville opened the tournament with a 42-22 win over Loganville, which finished second in last year’s area duals. The Red Elephants lost to Clarke Central 44-19 in the championship semifinals, then defeated Apalachee 40-33 in the consolation bracket.
“Coach Nieselowski is the silent assassin,” Millwood said of the Red Elephants’ head coach. “He does a very good job. They were the third seed coming in. He’s taken the program and built a contender.”