2014-16 Region: 8-AAAAA
New head coaches this year: Richard Ramsey, girls cross country and girls track & field; Carol Summer, girls golf
Jimmy Lawler has watched Flowery Branch High School grow on a near-daily basis since its infancy in 2002.
He’s also seen his own individual role grow and change along with it during those 12 years, going from baseball head coach to assistant principal to, most recently, athletic director.
Although Flowery Branch is no longer a fledgling school venturing into new territory each year, Lawler is eager to maintain continuous improvement within the school’s sports programs.
“In the beginning we kind of had (a mix of students) from two other schools, but our community has grown and we’ve got a lot of people moving into this area now that the economy is coming back,” said Lawler, who is entering his second season as the Falcons athletic director. “We expect now to be competitive in everything to the point where we have a chance to win at the state level. We didn’t have that at the beginning.
“We’ve had a lot of successful years and seen it grow from year to year, and now we’ve kind of stabilized, but we want to push the bar a little bit higher where we have a chance to win multiple state championships.”
The Times sports editor Jared Putnam sat down with Lawler to discuss the Falcons’ recent past and what the athletic director sees for the coming season, as part of a series of question-and-answer sessions with area athletic directors.
What stood out to you about Flowery Branch athletics last year? It seemed like a really solid year across the board, with most teams coming away with winning records or reaching the state playoffs.
“I guess you’d classify it as a solid year. We started off with a state championship in cross country — boys — and had several teams go to the state tournament early and kind of continued that throughout the school year. “Yeah, we had some teams advance to the state competition, but I think there were a few disappointments along the line. Some teams felt like they could have done a little bit better, but there were some surprises at well, so I think the way you classify it as a solid year is a good way to define our 2013-2014 athletic season.”
Were you happy with keeping Region 8-AAAAA the same apart from the addition of Lanier High?
“To start with, we’re glad we didn’t have to move to (Class) 6A. We’re very happy that we’re a solid 5A school, and I think we will be for a few more years, at least. You hear rumors about how the region is going to change and how this team might be moved over, or this team might be moved out, but at the end of the day Lanier gets moved in and we have a new team on our schedule, (while) nobody moved out.
“Lanier comes in having had a lot of success. They’re growing and I imagine they’ll be 6A in a short period of time, but they’re a playoff team in football, baseball and I believe basketball as well. A good team is moving in, but with a good team you’re also getting, hopefully, a group of parents that travel. We want to be competitive in every sport, but we also want to have good gates, and that’s been mentioned by a couple other athletic directors.
“We feel like at Flowery Branch our community supports us very well. We feel like we travel to away games very well, but we also like to see our visitor stands full from time to time, and we hope that with Lanier, we’ll get that in some sports.”
How have you seen Flowery Branch change since it opened?
“We expect to win. When our people come out and our students go out and support our athletic teams, we’re expecting to celebrate at the end of the game and high-five our athletes and see them in the hallway the next day and congratulate them. We want to advance every year. We want to get better every year. We want to contend for state championships in different sports.
“We’ve had some success in different areas, but across the board we want to be a school that’s looked upon as that team has got a chance to win it. When you hire good coaches, you’re going to get things done right. You have to have some luck and you have to have some athletes, but we’re going to coach them up and try to compete for state championships in every sport.”
Flowery Branch’s rivalry with Gainesville has obviously been big for a long time, but with being separated from the other Hall County schools in a higher classification, has that just fueled it even more?
“It’s a great rivalry in every sport, especially football. The last couple years the region championship has been determined by that last game of the season against Gainesville. Everybody wants to see that game, and I don’t think in the last two years they’ve been disappointed when they left.
“We won two years ago; they won the state championship. They beat us last year in a very high-scoring, entertaining football game. We look at every sport and look across the board to say, ‘Who have we got to beat to win the region?’ A lot of times we look across the neighborhood and we’ve got Gainesville High School that we have to beat.
“I think they probably feel the same way about us in a lot of sports. It’s a big rivalry and with us being the only two teams in (Region 8-AAAAA) in this geographical area, two pretty athletic schools with pretty good fan bases, it’s always fun to play them regardless of what sport.”
And you guys play Gainesville in the final football game of the regular season again this year, for the third year in a row. Has it just worked out that way by coincidence, or have you guys actively pushed to make that the regular season finale?
“I wasn’t at the region meeting when these schedules were drawn two years ago, but I think that was just luck of the draw. Of course, it’s great this year because PBS will be here to broadcast that game on television, MaxPreps has made us one of its games of the week in the rivalry series, which is a nationwide thing.
“So, people outside of this area recognize how big of a game it is and how good the rivalry has become over the last few years.
“I think (Gainesville athletic director) Coach (Wayne) Vickery would agree with me that we respect each other. I think a lot of Coach Vickery and the people at Gainesville High School, and I think our fans and the athletes agree, too. It’s not a bitter hate; we enjoy playing them and the competition of trying to come out on top.
“In every sport in this region, you’ve got to look at Flowery Branch and Gainesville as two of the teams to beat to advance and win a region championship and advance beyond the region.”
The other athletic directors in the county repeatedly point to finances as the biggest challenge for a school’s sports programs. Do you agree?
“The challenge is always financial, and I think every athletic director you talk to is going to say the same thing about that. The challenge is being able to do things for your coach and your athletes and your facilities from year to year.
“Everything is driven by football. The crowds at football, you want them to be big crowds, and that’s why it’s important to have some rivalries and some teams that travel well when they come to see you. We’re fortunate this year in that we’ve added another local team to our football schedule in Chestatee. We haven’t been able to play anybody in this area outside of Gainesville High School for quite a while. Coach Luttrell, before he left, agreed to play us home and home. This year we’ll go to Chestatee (in Week 1) and next year, they’ll come here. So, we’re glad about that. We hope we develop a good, competitive spirit with Chestatee.
“But, it all comes down to how many people are in the stands. You want to fill the stands, and to do that, you have to be competitive. You have to put a good product out there, and we feel like we do that every night in every sporting event. We’re very fortunate at Flowery Branch that the community supports us both financially by donations and advertising, but also, they come to games.”
As a former baseball coach, are there ever any days where you miss being in the dugout?
“A lot of days. Some good friends of mine who are still coaching have asked me the same question: ‘What’s the biggest transition? What hurts you the most?’ The answer to that is the competition.
“As a coach, you put your uniform on or your hat or whatever and you go out and try to beat somebody. You prepare your guys and you have a game plan to try to beat somebody, and at the end of the night you either feel really good that you prepared your team well, or you’re disappointed in the way you prepared them and you don’t sleep that night thinking about what you can do to prepare them for that next contest.
“So the biggest thing, and I’ve not found anything to replace it, is the competition. I cheer hard for all our sports here, but it’s not the same when you’re not on the sideline or in the dugout. I have two young children (a 9-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son) that are participating in athletics, but at their age there is still nothing for me to get excited about. I want to cheer them on, but I’m still looking to replace the competition and trying to beat somebody.”
So, right now you’re probably trying to not be that parent who is overly invested in their performances at such young ages?
“It’s interesting, being a coach for 18 years of my career, you can almost pick out the ex-coaches who are parents. They don’t say anything. I’m the guy that sits over there with his mouth shut and cheers for the team. I don’t complain about anything because I’ve been there, I’ve been on the other side of it, and I know not to.”
Is there anything in particular that you want to see Flowery Branch athletics accomplish in the near future?
“As an athletic director you want to have titles and banners, but at the end of the day, and I’ve learned this more probably after I got out of coaching and started looking back at my athletic career, you want your players and your teams to have good experiences.
“When I was in high school, we were very competitive. We didn’t win a lot of titles, but we were competitive and had fun. I look back on those days and think, ‘That was really good.’ You want to put your athletes in a situation where, win or lose, they have good experiences, and I think we’re doing that here at Flowery Branch.
“I think the coaches we have are not only good X’s and O’s people who can teach the fundamentals and get you ready to win championships, but they’re also very people-oriented.
“When a kid graduates, they’re going to look back on their days at Flowery Branch and realize that those days were some of the best of their life, because those coaches taught them a few things.
“We’re at the point now in our 13th year where we’re starting to get some kids come back to Flowery Branch who have graduated here and played sports, who now have teaching degrees and want to work with us. We’ve hired a couple in the last couple years and we’ve got some more, some kids that played baseball for me, who came back and said, ‘Coach, I want to be a high school coach and I want to teach, tell me what I need to do.’ That makes you feel good. Those kids, when they leave my office, they don’t know it, but it’s a very satisfying feeling and that’s the atmosphere you want to have for your kids and athletes, and I think that’s some of the things we’re doing here.”