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Region 8-AAAAA: Hall County rivalry returning to spotlight
Gainesville, Flowery Branch back together in new Region 8-AAAAA
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At a glance

Region 8-AAAAA

Subregion A

Apalachee

Flowery Branch

Gainesville

Winder-Barrow

Subregion B

Cedar Shoals

Clarke Central

Heritage

Loganville

Salem

Top teams by sport (based on recent performance)

Softball: Loganville

Volleyball: Clarke Central

Cross country: Winder-Barrow girls, Flowery Branch boys

Football: Clarke Central, Gainesville and Flowery Branch

Basketball: Clarke Central girls, Cedar Shoals boys

Wrestling: Loganville

Baseball: Loganville and Gainesville

Track and Field: Flowery Branch girls, Clarke Central boys

Soccer: Flowery Branch girls, Gainesville boys

Golf: Gainesville girls and boys

Tennis: Flowery Branch girls, Gainesville boys

Football playoffs

Region 8-AAAAA plays a straight region schedule. Playoff teams are determined by final region standings (1st-4th).

Flowery Branch and Gainesville have met nine times on the gridiron since the Falcons football program began in 2002.

Through 2008, the teams played once each season, and in 2009, the two met in the regular season to decide the region title, and in the state semifinals to decide which would advance to the state title game.

Flowery Branch athletic director Shannon Benton rattled a number of the big games in the series off the top of his head; first a big comeback by Flowery Branch in 2006, and then one by Gainesville three years later.

“It was a good rivalry. We had some of our biggest gates with Gainesville; we had some classic battles,” Benton said. “It’ll be a good game for us; they’re a good rival, a quality program and certainly add to the competition in the region.”

On Nov. 9, for the first time in nearly three years, the county rivalry will resume when the two meet in Flowery Branch for the final regular season game of the season.

“It may be the old Flowery Branch rivalry situation,” said Gainesville coach Bruce Miller. “Coming down to the last game to decide the region, or playoffs.”

It’s a game that could very well decide the regular season title. Although, it’s not that simple.

Last season, four of this year’s 8-AAAAA teams finished the regular season 9-1; Heritage, Clarke Central and Flowery Branch in 8-AAAA, and Gainesville in 8-AAA. All four were declared region champs after the three 8-AAAA schools declared themselves co-region champs with the tiebreakers cancelling out.

This year, something’s got to give.

“I think it’s a wide open race, anytime you get AAAAA football, your going to have athletes at all the schools,” said Flowery Branch coach Chris Griffin. “Potentially, there’s six or seven teams that have got the tradition and the ability to be in the top four; its not a done deal by any means.”

Entering the 2012 season, Gainesville figures to join Flowery Branch as one of the favorites for one of the top four spots. But as good as the Red Elephants have been in the past, athletic director Wayne Vickery knows the move won’t be easy.

“Jumping one classification is tough, jumping two is a mighty tall order,” Vickery said. “The competition’s tougher, but competition’s good. We don’t shy away from competition.”

Two years ago, Flowery Branch moved up to Region 8-AAAA in the Georgia High School Association realignment, leaving its rivalry against Gainesville temporarily on hold.

Now the Red Elephants are rising to meet the Falcons in the new Region 8-AAAAA, and it looks to be crowded at the top in the run for a region football title.

Griffin, who was an assistant coach under former Falcons coach Lee Shaw from the program’s beginning, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Gainesville made the leap with ease.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they finish 9-1 or 10-0,” he said.

Led by rising junior quarterback Deshaun Watson, The Times All Area Player of the Year and an All-State selection, the Red Elephants, a state semifinalist last season, certainly won’t be overlooked by any of the other teams in the region.

Griffin added that playing a tougher schedule won’t be as much of a shock for Gainesville, considering the regular games against powerhouse Buford, for example.

The Red Elephants addition will also further open up a region that had once been known for Wing-T, run-heavy offenses. They join Flowery Branch, Clarke Central and a couple of other teams who are moving to more of spread-based offenses.

Gainesville will also add to the depth of a league that Griffin said will likely have up to seven teams legitimately battling for the four spots, instead of last season, when Heritage, Clarke Central and Flowery Branch ran away with the top three.

“It’s just a tough region,” Griffin said.

In addition to strengthening the region, Gainesville’s inclusion also allows for increased region rivalries, not just the natural Hall County rivalry between Flowery Branch and Gainesville.

Vickery noted that Gainesville and the old Athens High, now Clarke Central, used to be rivals, and that the Red Elephants played Winder-Barrow consistently for a long stretch of time years ago.

Over the past two seasons the Falcons and Gladiators have developed something of a rivalry considering both meetings have been for region titles.

Now the county rivals will meet in the final game at the end of the season for at least the next two years, but the Gladiators are still very much a region title contender, having won a co-region title last season and an outright title in 2010 when they swept through the regular season. The depth doesn’t stop after the presumed top four; in 2009 it was Apalachee that went 10-0 during the season to capture the region title.

Griffin and Miller mentioned the Wildcats, Loganville and Cedar Shoals as team that, although not in the postseason last year, could certainly upset any of the favorites.

Miller explained that the biggest difference with moving up in classifications, and the thing Gainesville will have to adjust to most, is not as much the increased talent of the skill players, but of the lineman.

“I think we’ve got those type of kids,” he added. “But I’m kind of anxious to see.”

Miller’s not alone.

Even though Gainesville is the only new face in what was formerly 8-AAAA, this is a region where, usually, teams can’t be crowned region champs until the final buzzer of the final game. The Red Elephants inclusion to a region that had already become deeper with Flowery Branch’s addition two years prior only makes things more of a toss-up. The drop from 11 to nine teams hardly makes up for the increase in talent, and both Gainesville and Flowery Branch scheduled a pair of 2011 state playoff teams for the first two non-region weeks.

As Shaw explained to Miller last year about the region, “he said, ‘week in and week out, you’ve got to come to play.’”

BASEBALL JUGGERNAUTS: Football isn’t the only sports where Gainesville’s tradition of success will be tested. The Red Elephants baseball team has a history of state titles and reached the semifinals of the Class AAA state playoffs this past season, but future Region 8-AAAAA opponent Loganville did one better, winning the Class AAAA state title in three games over Greenbrier.

“Loganville, they’re the defending state champs in baseball. That’s not going to be a cakewalk either,” said Vickery, Gainesville’s former baseball coach. “We swept Loganville in the state finals in 2002, but that was a big rivalry then, and I expect it to be again now.”

The Red Devils are the three-time defending region champs, and have been shadowed closely by Winder-Barrow, which has, like Gainesville, also been to the playoffs each of the past three seasons.

The Red Elephants and Bulldoggs will share the North subregion, which has recently been Winder-Barrow’s to lose, with Flowery Branch right behind, and Loganville will once again be the favorite to win the South.

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