To be the best in 2020, Flowery Branch is going to have to beat the best — earlier rather than later.
On top of that, it’s one of the Falcons’ former region rivals.
On Friday, fifth-ranked Flowery Branch (9-2) will visit No. 1 Marist (9-0) in just the second round of the Class 4A state playoffs.
These two have played previously in 2018 and 2019 when they were both two of the best programs in Region 8-4A, but the War Eagles won both of those games, handily.
“This is the third year in a row that we’ve faced Flowery Branch, so there won’t really be any surprises,” Marist coach Alan Chadwick said. “Flowery Branch definitely has the most complete offense that we’ve seen all season. They have two great running backs and a quarterback who is playing exceptionally well, they also like to slip the tight ends down the field, so we have to have great eye discipline.”
This time, however, Flowery Branch is trending in a direction that makes it look like this one will be one of the more highly-anticipated matchups, in any classification, in the second round of the playoffs.
“Everyone on our team is 100 percent focused this week and we know what we’re capable of doing,” Falcons senior tight end Sal Sengson said. “In the playoffs, it’s survive or die.”
Flowery Branch dominated Luella, 40-6, in the first round of the postseason Saturday. Marist beat Central-Carroll 49-0 to open the playoffs the same day.
Falcons coach Ben Hall likes the progress his program has made, saying they are up to the task against Marist, which is one of the most revered programs in the state.
“It’s going to take our very best effort to beat Marist,” Hall said. “Marist is a really good football team.”
Last week, junior quarterback David Renard was in peak form for the Falcons, completing 14 of 21 throws with three touchdown passes, as well as a 12-yard rushing score in the first half.
The Falcons scored five touchdowns and had a 28-yard Maddux Trujillo field goal in the first half and didn’t have to punt against Luella in the first two quarters.
Don’t expect that kind of lopsided matchup against Marist, which shut out 5 of 8 regular-season opponents and in two other games allowed just a single field goal. The only three touchdowns allowed by the War Eagles, which have been wire-to-wire No. 1 in the state this season, were against Mays once the Region 6-4A championship was firmly in hand on the final night of the regular season.
Marist is led by senior offensive tackle Davis McKenna (who will play at Harvard University), Southern California committ Joshua Moore at wide receiver and senior tight end Derek McDonald (a Syracuse University commit).
Hall said he’s very familiar with most of the players for Marist since they were on the field when these two programs played the past two seasons. The War Eagles have eight starters on both sides of the ball who also started in 2019, Chadwick said.
“Marist is a senior-laden squad,” Hall said. “They’re big and very physical and run that veer offense very well.”
Chadwick (395-73 in his career) has been Marist’s coach since 1985. In that time, he’s guided the War Eagles to a state championship in 2003 (when Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay was its team captain) and three state runner-up finishes.
Flowery Branch has played top-ranked teams in the postseason four times since 2011.
They’ve all been close, but the Falcons are seeking their first playoff win against the top team in the state.
In 2019, the 10th-ranked Falcons battled No. 1 Cartersville in a 14-6 loss.
In 2011, No. 7 Flowery Branch fell to No. 1 Tucker 42-34 in the state quarterfinals.
In 2009, Flowery Branch played No. 1 Gainesville down to the wire in a 29-21 state semifinal loss at City Park Stadium, while the season before that the Falcons won four road playoff games before losing to No. 1 Cairo 28-14 in the state championship at the Georgia Dome.
This time, those who are on the field think it will be differently.
“Marist is a nationally-known team,” Sengson said. “We have to be ready to play assignment football.”
“It would mean the world to me to be able to beat Marist,” senior wide receiver Ryan Lusco said. “Marist is an extremely tough opponent, but I think we have the tools to get it done this time.”
Flowery Branch has now played in the postseason in 13 of the past 16 seasons.
Friday’s second-round playoff schedule
Flowery Branch at Marist, 7:30 p.m.
Cherokee Bluff vs. Carver-Atlanta, 7:30 p.m.
North Hall at Greater Atlanta Christian, 7:30 p.m.