FLOWERY BRANCH — Flowery Branch football has re-established some lofty expectations under coach Ben Hall, ending a three-year barren streak in the playoffs with a second round berth in 2017.
On Friday, the Falcons will test their resurgence against the current gold standard in Class 4A when defending state champion and current No. 1 Blessed Trinity pays a visit to the Branch.
Both teams enter the showdown at 6-0, and the fifth-ranked Falcons know they have a chance to impress the entire state, as well as take a huge step forward in the race for Region 7-4A against the Titans.
They also know it will take a special effort to do so.
"We're going to have to avoid turnovers and big plays on special teams and just work to contain the big play and make them earn everything they get and try to control the ball," said Hall, now in his second season with the Falcons. "Offensively, we're going to have to have some big plays, and we're going to have to exploit some match-ups and try to big-play them when we can. But at the same time we can't live and die by the big play. We have to be able to control the ball."
The Branch has shown the ability to do both this season thanks to a mix of talent, experience and belief -- which was instilled during last season's postseason push.
"Last year we were kind of young, didn't have that much confidence," Falcons senior running back Zarian Brawner said. "Now it's like everybody's kind of hyped and have more confidence in themselves. Now we're trusting each other to do their job, as we're doing our job. Everybody's doing their job, and everything can get done."
Brawner and Jaizen Ellingham -- along with a stout offensive line -- are doing plenty of the heavy lifting in the Falcons' physical run game that is helping the Branch to average 43.3 points per game. Yet the Branch is also developing a consistent aerial threat to go alongside, as quarterback Elijah Gainey continues to gain confidence -- aided by a receiving corps that is proving far more than a one-man show. Senior Jalin Strown was already known as an explosive quantity, but DJ Brown and Connor Lawson are showing that defenses focus on Strown at their own peril.
That said, Blessed Trinity's ability -- especially on defense -- is something the Falcons have yet to face.
The Titans are third in all of Class 4A, having allowed just 56 points. And while the Branch is just three points behind in fourth, Blessed Trinity already has three victories over fellow top 10 teams under its belt. This will be the Falcons' first contest against a ranked team this season.
The Titans feature perhaps the most impressive linebacker corps in the state, led by Ohio State commit Steele Chambers (who also features as a running back) and former Georgia commit JD Bertrand (who leads the team in tackle). Meanwhile, defensive lineman JR Bivens (Middle Tennessee commit) is a hugely disruptive force up front.
"Across the board they're strong, but their linebacker corps is probably unmatched statewide," Hall said. "But the kids that aren't premier prospects for them are very, very good high school players. And then, offensively, they do what they do. They roll guys through. Most of their kids play both ways, like ours do, and they do a good job of controlling the ball and playing strong defense. And it's going to be a tough match-up."
But after rolling to its best start since 2011, Flowery Branch believes it is ready for perhaps the ultimate test -- certainly within its own classification and region.
"I think so far we've stayed really focused this week because in our eyes we know it's just another game and another opponent," Falcons junior linebacker Connor Mayfield said. "It's going to be a test for us; we know that, but it doesn't matter about all the other stuff that's going on around us. We're focused."