FLORENCE – The last time Florence High School hosted a playoff game was Nov. 14, 2014.
The Falcons hosted Shades Valley for a second round game in Class 6A and won 43-21 on their way to the state semifinals.
None of today’s Falcons was part of that team. But their current four-game win streak made them runner-up in Class 7A, Region 4 and earned Florence (6-4) hosting privileges for a first round game at 7 p.m. tonight.
They’ll play Mountain Brook (8-2), a third-place team from Class 7A, Region 3 that spent much of the year ranked in the state’s top 10 Class 7A poll.
Last year’s Florence squad finished fourth in its first year as a Class 7A, Region 4 team and was routed at Thompson, but coach Will Hester said he and his staff have been through a full year with all the players now and that’s helped build relationships.
Hester said at the end of the summer the team spent three nights together at the school, and on the last night the players acted out skits, getting a chance to express their personalities and maybe even poke fun at the coaches.
“Any time you can do that and share those experiences like that, it brings you together as a team,” Hester said. “When you’re sleeping and eating in the same space and going through the hard times together and going through the fun stuff together … we didn’t have the opportunity to do that the first year because we were so new.
“This year we did have that opportunity, and I think that aided us.”
Florence senior Dee Beckwith, who shares the quarterback job with Gardner Flippo and also can play receiver or running back, thinks the team’s biggest areas of progress have been communication and trust. In particular, he said trust between the quarterbacks and receivers has improved.
“Every day at practice when we’re repping our plays and our routes … if we’re off to the side we’ll just say what we feel. Nobody gets offended. We just work on it,” Beckwith said. “So that helped us out, talking to one another.
“I feel like everybody should be able to talk to their teammate, their brother, and tell them what’s wrong and how we can fix things.”
Florence alternated wins and losses through the first five weeks. There were wins over Buckhorn and region foe Bob Jones, but also blowout losses to Brentwood Academy (Tenn.) and eventual region champ James Clemens. In between, there was a loss to Austin in which the Black Bears completed a long touchdown pass on fourth down in the game’s final moments.
After a mid-season loss to 6A power Muscle Shoals, the Falcons were 2-4.
“In that middle part of the year, we played those tough teams and didn’t play as well,” Hester said. “(But) we knew what we were capable of doing.”
But then Florence ran off four straight region wins over Huntsville, Gadsden City, Grissom and Sparkman – the last three by double digits.
In the pouring rain two weeks ago, Florence shut down a Sparkman team that won its first seven games of the year.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life,” senior linebacker Preston Hardin said. “That was the best game I've ever played. I’ve played football for 13 years. Most fun I’ve ever had. I’ll remember that for years.”
Hardin enjoyed the fun of playing in the rain and also how many tackles he was able to get on a night when the weather dictated lots of running plays.
He also appreciates the recent success after a 2-4 start.
“I had all faith in everybody on this team. I don’t doubt anybody on this team,” Hardin said. “ … I was getting a little worried. But that didn’t dampen my faith at all.”
Beckwith and Hardin were among the team’s known leaders before the season, but other Falcons with varying levels of experience have stood out.
Hester said strong play at linebacker allowed the team to shift Tuscaloosa County transfer Lajuan Jones from defense to running back, where he’s been effective along with veteran Javean Griffin and freshman Jaylen Simpson.
Freshman corner Jahlil Hurley, who Hester said was tested by opposing offenses early in the year, is now one of the team’s most valuable defensive backs and “he’s making plays that seniors struggle to make.” Defensive back Dean Moore, linebackers Carson Casteel, Kylan Williams and Tabarious Thompson and defensive lineman Quintariuos Abernathy have also shined.
Florence is now 2-for-2 in reaching the playoffs as a Class 7A team. Now the Falcons seek a win.
“We proved a lot, especially being in 7A,” Beckwith said. “We proved a lot, that we can play with the best.”
Hardin said a playoff game at Braly as a senior is “a great opportunity.”
Hester said the team’s cohesion and pride in the team and community allows the Falcons “at times to maybe play above our head, if you will.”
They’re eager to add another accomplishment.
“The kids wanted to do something special – especially this senior group – wanted to be able to hang their name on something,” Hester said. “And now to go out and have the opportunity to play at home and win a 7A playoff game, which hasn’t been done yet, they’re able to stack things that are genuinely only theirs. That’s something that’s very motivating.”