December 4, 2021

Times-Georgian preview of Class AA Semifinal in Franklin

Courtesy of Mason Wittner and the Times-Georgian

(Franklin, GA) — The Heard County High School football team hasn’t forgotten the gut-wrenching ending to last season’s historic playoff run.

After advancing to the Class AA state semifinals with an upset on the road of No. 1 seed Thomasville, the Braves hosted another No. 1 seed in Hapeville Charter on Dec. 1, 2017. Their season ended in heartbreaking fashion as the Hornets scored on a 20-yard rushing touchdown with 5.3 seconds left in the fourth quarter to stun the Braves, 28-21.

Hapeville Charter would go on to defeat Rabun County, 35-23, to claim the state championship.

“That was a really sour taste that we had last year,” recalled senior offensive lineman Michael Cheney. “Losing that close after going that far, it’s a terrible feeling. This year we’ve got another shot, and that’s very rare.”

Thanks to an 18-3 victory on the road against Dublin last week, top-seeded Heard County (11-2) finds itself hosting a semifinal game for the second year in a row. The Braves welcome No. 2 Fitzgerald to Staples Stadium on Friday to battle for a spot in the state championship in the 7:30 p.m. kickoff.

Heard County head coach Tim Barron stressed that this year’s squad is taking a different mental approach to its semifinal appearance than it did a season ago.

“Last year, when we beat Thomasville at Thomasville, there was just pure excitement and joy because we had gotten (to the semifinals),” Barron said. “Last week against Dublin, it was like, ‘OK, good game, but that’s not what we’re here for.’ The mindset is totally different.”

Cheney expressed similar sentiments.

“Last year we were happy to make it to Game 14. It was honestly a surprise,” Cheney said. “But this year, it’s expected. We feel like we’ve prepared really good over these past few weeks for this moment, and now it’s just time to go out, put it on the field and live with the result.”

Awaiting Heard County in Game 14 is Fitzgerald (10-3), which has made it this far by relying on a physical, run-heavy offensive attack. The Purple Hurricanes use a multiple offense, sometimes going to a spread look while other times getting into a power set.

“It’s almost like preparing for two different football teams. They do so many things, and they do them well,” Barron said. “The one thing that really stands out is how physical the running backs are. They’re obviously very strong, they run through tackles. And it’s not just one back, it’s three and four backs that are very, very good. It will be a huge challenge for us defensively to try to slow down that offense.”

It’s a challenge that isn’t new for the Braves. Last week, they were tasked with finding a way to shut down Dublin, which entered the contest averaging 39 points per game, and managed to hold the Fighting Irish to a field goal.

But Barron is making sure his players understand their previous success against high-powered offenses won’t automatically translate into success against Fitzgerald’s offense if they’re not preparing with the same intensity they’ve had all year.

“Whatever we’ve done before means absolutely nothing compared to what we’re playing against Friday night,” Barron said. “It’s a new ballgame, new personnel. So we’ve got to kind of reset our mind.”

Barron lauded the Purple Hurricanes for having a physical group of guys on the defensive side of the ball, as well. They’ve held opponents to an average of 17.6 points per game this year.

“They’re a tough, south Georgia group,” Cheney said of the Purple Hurricane defensive line. “They’ve got a lot of athletes, big guys, but we feel like we can handle them. We’ve been dealing with bigger lines all season, so this is something we’re looking forward to.”

Fellow senior offensive lineman Jaidan Cameron also touched on the obstacle the Fitzgerald defense poses.

“I feel like we’re going to do good. We’ve just got to play good,” Cameron said. “Like the offensive line, we’ve just got to step up and take care of business. We’ve just got to block our tails off.”

Heard County enters riding a 10-game winning streak after suffering back-to-back losses to Hapeville Charter and Rockmart in the second and third games of the campaign, respectively.

While the winning streak is impressive, the Braves understand that they’ve still yet to accomplish the ultimate goal they set out for this year — securing a state title.

“It’s going to be a challenge. It’s going to be tough, it’s gong to be a battle,” Barron said. “But our goal is not just being here, it’s finding a way to win it.”

The winner of Friday’s semifinal showdown will advance to the Class AA state championship game to take on either Rockmart or Callaway — a pair of opponents the Braves have already seen this season.

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