(Atlanta, GA) — It was the greatest day to be a Brave.
An immense legion of Heard County fans filed into Mercedes-Benz Stadium Wednesday afternoon in hopes of seeing the Braves capture the first ever state championship in the 47-year history of the football program.
The group would not leave disappointed as Coach Tim Barron’s squad battered and bruised the Class AA rival Rockmart Yellow Jackets by a final score of 27-6.
The Braves never trailed in the contest controlling the title game from start to finish as the Heard fans in attendance and those watching at home went wild. The Braves scored 27 unanswered to and the staunch defense continued to lead the way all but shutting out a Rockmart team 45.8 points per game coming in.
The history-making win was marked by the term ‘redemption’ following the Braves’ 33-0 loss at ‘The Rock’ in a game shortened by the weather after only one half on September 7.
The embarrassing loss came on the heels of another 33-3 setback to defending champion Hapeville that left the Braves unranked with a 1-2 record after opening the season ranked as high as No. 2 in some polls.
Despite digging themselves a seemingly big hole that early in the season, the team would more than just bounce back the next week with a 45-0 home win over Central. The Braves would battle back to win 12 straight games and finish the season with 13 wins — both school records.
Coach Barron received some criticism after making the difficult decision that night in Rockmart to not continue the game but he felt it was the right thing to do for his team based on several injuries that had already taken place, very poor field conditions following the torrential rains, and a second lightning strike that would have had the game likely finishing after midnight if it were to be restarted.
The 17-year Brave head coach thinks that facing that much adversity to start the season was a key to the memorable championship run.
“Had we not taken that whipping in Rockmart that night I can’t say that we would be where we are at this point in time,” said Barron after the title game. “When people talk about the good lord has a plan and if we just listen to him and if we’ll just fight through it — a lot of good can come out of bad things.”
Barron and his staff used the lessons learned from that night prior to the title game.
“In the pregame we talked to these guys about what Marines go through in boot camp and how they break them down and tear them down so they can build them back stronger — not only the physical part but the mental part — and that night really did that for us. It made us a stronger and more physically tough bunch and it made us better as coaches,” Barron said.
“That game didn’t define these players as a team, but it was certainly a defining moment. To get to play Rockmart again for a state title and for these kids to play the way they did is unreal. It says a lot about the character of these young men.”
Aaron Beasley and Alijah Huzzie led the way for the Braves offense in the title game with each scoring on two short TD bursts.
Helping coach Randall Curbow’s offense control the ball was the tough work up front by offensive lineman Michael Cheney, Anthony Graley, Jaidan Cameron, David Urquilla, and Matt Brown.
A junior, Matt Brown really came into his own for o-line coach Kyle Yates during the playoff run filling in for senior Brenden Thompson who was out with a knee injury.
Beasley finished the game with 144 yards on 29 carries and added to an impressive season total finishing with 1961 yards, the third highest total for a season in school history.
Following Beasley’s first TD to open the scoring, Huzzie found LeQuincy Shepherd on the two-point pass play to give the Braves the early 8-0 lead that they would hold onto until the half.
Although the Brave offense was efficient all game long, it was the Brave defense that was once again the story not only holding the highly touted Jacket offense to less than 200 total yards and six late points — but also cementing a legacy as the top defense in school history.
The game in general was epitomized by a solid game plan by the coaching staff highlighted by a “Heard County style” of hard-nosed physical defense and ball-control offense.
Senior Brave Andrew Leak talks to the crowd after the game (Photo: Jeff Napier)
Beasley and the monsters in the box led the way for the Brave defense who left the Jacket offense with more questions than answers in the quest for points.
Jai Wright had another strong performance and led the team in tackles with 13 despite leaving the game for a short time with a finger injury.
The anchor of the linebacking corps senior Andrew Leak finished with 12 tackles including four for a loss. Leak also caught two passes for the offense.
Big Zaylin Wood was a force as he has been throughout the playoffs finishing the game with eight tackles including four for a loss to extend his school record to 40 for the season. Wood also exited the game late in the first half with a leg injury but was able to tough it out and play the rest of the game.
The biggest play of the game defensively came on a huge stop by Leak and junior Kesean Johnson with the Jackets facing a short fourth and goal in the third quarter. The Jackets appeared deflated after the huge goal line stand from the Braves.
Junior DL Tray Owens was yet another Brave that battled through the obvious pain from a shoulder injury and finished with seven tackles.
Given the championship situation in the NFL stadium it was clear nothing short of a horrific injury was going to keep the Brave starters off the gridiron.
The Braves off-season weightlifting and training program clearly paid dividends on the biggest stage.
Shepherd had another big game on the defensive side of the ball including two interceptions that tied him with Jaden Moreland for the single season Brave record (7). The first was a back-breaking fourth quarter pick for the Jackets that Shepherd returned to the Rockmart one. On the next play, Huzzie converted the TD to extend the lead to 20-0.
The final touchdown from Beasley and PAT by senior Jakab Moon ultimately iced the game at 27-0 before the jackets added a late scoring pass to close it to 27-6.
Other strong performers defensively included Huzzie, David Urquilla, Johnson, Micaiah Austin, Sam Brown, Tray Dunson, Qua Thornton, Kezman Kelley, P.J. Cofield, Leroy Marsh, and Komari Clark.
Barron says his defensive coordinator, D.J. Curbow, defensive line coach Shane Lasseter and inside linebackers coach Tyler Napier were the keys to game-planning an attack to shut down the Jacket offense.
“What a job they did scheming,” Barron said. “They went back and looked at the last film, and they looked at the way other people defended them. But them to be able to put together a game plan like that is unreal.”
Leading the way for the Braves on special teams as he did for much of the season was sophomore Alex Boyd.
After the game, the Braves and a long caravan of fans returned home to Staples Stadium to celebrate the truly historical victory.
Barron was thankful for the numerous Brave fans who came out to support his team. Many fans and alumni took off work, traveled from other parts of the country, and did whatever it took to get to the Benz and it showed with Heard fans packing nearly the entire lower section of the stadium on the visitor’s side.
Coaches and players all said they were amazed by the show of support and the noise generated by the enthusiastic group of an estimated 4-5 thousand Brave faithful that attended the game live and and many others who watched and followed from home and work.
The few citizens remaining in Heard County said the Franklin town square was a virtual “ghost town” like one would normally expect to see on a Sunday morning.
“It was rocking up there,” Barron said. “They’re always going to support us and whether we win or lose, they love their kids. To be able to give a championship back to our community is special.”
Barron said the feeling of winning his first state title as a coach was right up there with marrying his wife, Laura and the birth of his son Austin — both who were in attendance at the game along with a litany of supporters for every other coach.
For three Braves, P.J. Cofield, Penny Hood, and David Urquilla the day was extra special as they all celebrated their birthdays at the Benz.
A State Championship Parade Celebration through downtown Franklin and at HCHS is scheduled for Wednesday, January 9, 2019 at 6:00 PM. Stay tuned for further details.