December 5, 2020

Historic Brave win sets up epic semifinal clash at Staples

Brave captains in Thomasville Friday night were (L-R): Jaden Moreland, Emory Jones, Andrew Leak, and Alijah Huzzie

(Thomasville, GA) — Heard County fans were lined up at the gates a full two hours before kickoff time in South Georgia Friday night where the Brave varsity football team was looking to make school and county history by advancing to the GHSA Class AA State Semifinals for the first time.

Those fans would not walk away disappointed as Heard would pound out a 28-14 win thanks primarily to a ferocious effort by the Brave defense.

Many experts across the state were predicting a two touchdown win by the Thomasville Bulldogs (the No. 3 ranked team in the state), but the No. 8 Braves had other ideas. The setting was a raucous playoff environment at Veterans Memorial Stadium with an estimated 5,000-6,000 people in attendance.

Head coach Tim Barron and staff knew these 11-1 Braves would face a big challenge in a deep and balanced Bulldog squad that came into the game undefeated at 12-0 and with a large home crowd behind them.

Early in the game it was the Brave offense drew first blood when Emory Jones found his favorite target Jaden Moreland on a 50-yard touchdown bomb to give the Braves an early 7-0 lead with 8:56 to go in the first quarter.

Offensive coordinator Randall Curbow dialed up several running plays to set up that first pass of the game. The Braves would rely on the running game all night long with 45 rushing attempts primarily from Jones and junior Aaron Beasley. Being able to run the ball and control the clock was important for the Braves versus a team with so much depth.

While most of the Brave starters played both ways Friday night, the Bulldogs had just one player going both ways.

The Bulldog offense didn’t take long to respond to the early Brave score as they too put together a five plus minute scoring drive to tie the game at 7-7 with 3:56 to go in the first.

The Braves would again drive down and score quickly on a four yard TD run from Jones in what appeared to be a shoot-out early on.

The first of many big defensive plays of the night came on the next Bulldog drive in the form of an interception by junior Alijah Huzzie deep in the red zone.

The Braves were unable to capitalize and were forced to punt it back to the Bulldogs who began their next drive at the Brave 45. An acrobatic catch by a Bulldog receiver despite a huge hit from cornerback Jaden Moreland was a prime example of why both these hard-nosed physical teams were in the playoffs to begin with.

The Bulldogs tied the game at 14-14 with just seconds to go in the half — a big score as they would also receive the kickoff to open the second half.

Being over-matched in depth, the stringent Brave off-season and in season conditioning program would play a huge factor in the second half as the Braves tried to stay fresh and focused.

With the game tied and the Bulldogs starting the half on offense, defensive coordinator D.J. Curbow knew his defense would need to get a big stop or a turnover — they would get several — the first coming on a fumble recovery by senior Kendaz Goode to thwart that opening third quarter Bulldog drive.

The recovery came after a hustle strip from Alijah Huzzie very similar to one he pulled off in the win over Callaway earlier this season.

The Brave offense would again put the Braves up by a touchdown with 7:52 to play in the third on a strong run from Aaron Beasley. Junior Jakab Moon was perfect on his PAT attempts in the game.

Both defenses would stiffen at this point and the game headed to the fourth with the Braves clinging to the 21-14 lead.

A big stop by junior defensive end Tray Dunson would set the Braves up with nice field position in Bulldog territory with 11:00 to go in the game. The Braves defense would absolutely own the fourth quarter in Thomasville.

Following a nice stop by the Bulldog defense, Aaron Beasley would come up with a monster interception to send the Brave crowd into a fury. The Braves would capitalize this time as Jones carried it in for his second rushing score of the game with just 8:48 to play.

The Bulldogs had rallied from bigger deficits this season, so the Braves knew they would have to keep up the defensive pressure to finish off the historic win.

With a two touchdown lead, the Brave defense simply stymied the Bulldog offense the rest of the way fueled by two more turnovers to put away the game, the second of the game by Aaron Beasley with 8:00 to pay and the dagger INT from Emory Jones with just 2:23 to play.

As they did during the second half of the Callaway game, the Braves were battered and bruised and exhausted but continued to fight for the win until the last play of the game.

Jones finished the night with another dual effort both on the ground and via the pass. Jones was 4-for-8 through the air with 84 yards and a TD while scoring two touchdowns and gaining 84 yards on 16 attempts on the ground.

Aaron Beasley runs over a Bulldog defender during Friday night’s historic win (Photo: Riley Martin)

Beasley was again a workhorse out of the backfield gaining 132 yards on 26 carries with a TD.

The statistical story of the game, however, came from the Braves defense which allowed the Bulldogs just 33 rushing yards for the night on 18 attempts. The Bulldog offense had been averaging over 200 yards on the ground this season.

Leading the way for the Braves defense up front were Kendaz Goode, Tray Dunson, Tray Owens, Qua Thornton, and David Urquilla along with linebackers Micaiah Austin, Andrew Leak, and Collin Wright. Wright has filled in nicely for Kesean Johnson who is out with a season ending injury.

The total yardage was pretty even with the Braves slightly out-gaining the Dogs 308-285 but the five Bulldog turnovers forced by the Braves was clearly the difference in the game.

Coach Barron was extremely pleased with the effort all the way around but especially on defense.

“We had seen from the films that they had been really good when they could run and throw. They were just difficult to defend,” Barron said after the game. “For our interior guys and our inside backers to come out and force them into the passing game, it was the difference that won the game for us.”

Barron was also extremely complimentary of his kids and coaching staff for the preparation they put into the win.

“We’re just so awfully proud of these kids tonight that was a very good football team and just a relentless effort from our kids. We just continued to battle and fight make plays and more plays when we had to to hold that team to 14 points is quite an accomplishment,” said Barron.

“I also couldn’t be more proud of this coaching staff — from top to bottom, those guys have done such a great job of getting these kids prepared. What makes it so special is just the way our staff is. It’s guys that I’ve grown up with and been knowing since I was five years old — and it’s guys that I’ve coached — it’s Heard County people that love Heard County. I’m just so thankful to be able to work with those guys. They do a great job. I can’t stress enough that my job is just get out of their way because they take pride in what they do and I thought they put together a great game plan offensively, defensively and special teams wise tonight.”

Barron thinks that being able to spend more time with his team by doing the overnight trip to Florida State the day prior to the game was crucial to the outcome.

“I thought our kids handled this holiday week and the trip to FSU well — they treated it like a business trip. Even our young kids behaved and respected these older kids well and they were very focused on everything we needed them to do,” said Barron after the big quarterfinal victory.

“I don’t know if we didn’t have all that extra preparation if we could have done what we did tonight. It cost us a lot of money to be able to do this but you can’t put a price on this feeling we have right now.”

The Braves don’t have much time to celebrate as they prepare to host the Hapeville Charter Hornets in the semifinals this Friday night in Franklin. The game will likely draw the largest crowd in school history.

The No. 2 ranked Hornets (12-1) surprised many as they easily handed the top team in the state and defending state champion Benedictine Cadets a 31-17 loss in Savannah Friday night. The Hornets lone defeat this season came by a final score of 21-20 to Thomson, AL, a large school with only one loss to Alabama Powerhouse Hoover this season.

Brave senior QB Emory Jones is excited for one last opportunity to play in front of the home fans this Friday night.

“We knew what we had in store for us coming down here to Thomasville and we prepared really well this week,” said Jones after the game. “I’m so excited to have one more game at Staples Stadium and I hope we have a packed crowd there to support us. I know it will be my last time playing there so I’m going to give it everything I have.”

On the line for the winner of the semifinal game will be a monumental trip to the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta to compete for a Class AA State Championship on December 9 at 1:00 PM.

Brave players know they have to keep working hard to stay alive in these playoffs this week.

“We have put in a lot of hard work this year and it has paid off but we just have to keep moving forward and we have to keep executing,” says Aaron Beasley.

“We just came out and balled and did our thing tonight and we just have to keep it up this week. If we can have another good week of practice we will be ready for Hapeville this Friday night,” added junior offensive lineman Brenden Thompson.

On the left side of the Class AA bracket, No. 6 Brooks County rolled 31-0 over Callaway and No. 5 Rabun County crushed No. 4 Screven County 56-14.

Heard are Hapeville are both No. 1 seeds, but Heard is hosting based on a universal coin flip by the GHSA last Tuesday. Rabun will host Brooks in the other semifinal as the higher seed.

The Final Four features three No. 1 seeds and one No.2 seed in Brooks County. This will be the first time the Braves have face Hapeville Charter.

Due to the large expected attendance, Brave fans are encouraged to arrive at Friday night’s game very early. Tickets are $15 each as mandated by the GHSA.

 

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