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High school football: Sixth-ranked Flowery Branch geared up for region opener against No. 2 Jefferson
Winner will emerge the clear favorite to win Region 8-4A championship
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Flowery Branch tight end Baxley O'Brien runs over a Gainesville High defender Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, during the first half of their game at The Branch. - photo by Scott Rogers

Pressure is one of the privileges that comes with playing football at Flowery Branch. 

The sixth-ranked Falcons (3-1) have been in the playoffs each of the first three seasons under coach Ben Hall and in 2020 are a program that’s a contender for their first region championship since 2012.

However, Flowery Branch has a steep hill to climb with the Region 8-4A opener Friday against No. 2 Jefferson (4-0). 

After that, it gets a lot easier as the Falcons’ next four region opponents have a combined 1-14 mark. 

Given the magnitude of the first region game, Hall said that it’s going to make for a remarkable high school football environment. Keeping the guys focused this week in practice has also been easy, the Falcons coach said.

Despite an unconventional offseason, due to the coronavirus, Flowery Branch is geared up for playing in games of consequence.

“Big games are a lot of fun to prepare for,” said Hall, who was coach at Jefferson four years before returning to Flowery Branch, where he was previously an assistant coach. “It’s going to be a great environment, plus it’s going to be on television, which is good exposure for our kids.”

For Flowery Branch to win, it centers around limiting the impact of Dragons quarterback Malaki Starks, who is ranked the state’s second-best prospect in the Class of 2022 by 24/7Sports and hold 15 scholarship offers from Power 5 schools. 

In Jefferson’s triple-option attack, Starks, a junior, has run for run for 513 yards, passed for 225 and had a hand in 11 touchdowns. 

Hall said that Starks reminds him a lot of former Elbert County quarterback Mecole Hardman, who rose to prominence during his three seasons playing at the University of Georgia and is now a wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Flowery Branch’s coach has the task of trying to contain Hardman during two meetings when Hall was still in charge at Jefferson. 

Starks had two of the breakout games in 2019, rushing for two touchdowns and 171 yards against West Hall, then the following week had a four-touchdown night against Gainesville. 

“(Malaki) is one of the most dynamic players I’ve ever seen and he can take it the distance every time he has the ball,” Hall said. “We absolutely have to contain him.”

The Falcons also have their own bevy of offensive weapons, led by junior quarterback David Renard who was 16 of 18 passing with two touchdowns against Hiram on Oct. 2. For the season, Renard has completed 68% of his passes for 1,280 yards.

His two main weapons have been tight ends Baxley O’Brien and Sal Sengson, who both had a touchdown catch last week and have combined for 658 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2020. 

Sengson had one of the biggest grabs this season for Flowery Branch, when he hauled in a game-winning 27-yard throw in the final minute of the game to beat Gainesville 29-22 on Sept. 18. 

“We have big bodies at tight end who are good at getting open,” Hall said. “I know our quarterback is loving it.”

Connor Larson is Flowery Branch’s leading receiver with 24 catches for 465 yards and a touchdown. 

Falcons senior running back Jaizen Ellingham has been limited in his carries in recent weeks, getting just seven touches against Hiram last week and didn’t play two weeks prior to that against Gainesville. 

Last week, sophomore Myles Ivey gave Flowery Branch some punch in the running game with 25 carries for 106 yards. 

Flowery Branch lost both previous meetings against Jefferson (2016 and 2017). 

Friday’s games

Cherokee Bluff vs. Gilmer

North Hall vs. West Hall

East Hall vs. Cedar Shoals

Flowery Branch vs. Jefferson

Lakeview Academy vs. Coosa

Gainesville vs. Hillgrove

Johnson vs. Loganville

Bye: Chestatee

Regional events