The Heard County High School football team hammered out a historic victory on Friday night, doubling-up fellow No. 1 seed and Class AA state quarterfinal host Thomasville in a 28-14 triumph at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
With the decision, the Braves (12-1) advance to the state semifinals for the first time in program history and established a single-season benchmark for victories. HC will host another No. 1 seed, Hapeville Charter, in Game 14 next Friday night at Staples Stadium.
Veteran Heard County head coach Tim Barron said it was a special performance all the way around in south Georgia — for the players, coaching staff, school and community.
"First of all, we couldn't be more proud of the kids. And I also couldn't be more proud of the coaching staff," Barron said. "From top to bottom, those guys have done such a great job of getting the 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 5, it's guys that I've coached, it's Heard County people that love Heard County. I tell you what, 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."
The first half proved to be a back-and-forth affair, resulting in a 14-all contest heading into the break.
The Braves took an early 7-0 advantage on a 50-yard touchdown pass from Emory Jones to Jaden Moreland, but the Bulldogs (12-1) answered with a 70-yard drive that culminated in a two-yard Tan Gelin touchdown run.
Jones found the end zone with his feet for the next score on a four-yard run to put the visitors back on top early in the second quarter and the Heard defense got a huge stop on the ensuing Thomasville possession with an interception in the end zone — the first of four on the evening.
The Bulldog defense got a critical stop of its own, however, to set up its offense for a scoring drive where J.T. Rice connected with Trey Tillman for a touchdown pass with 14 seconds remaining in the half, bringing it back to even going into the locker room.
Where the game took a turn in Heard County's favor stemmed from the defensive dominance up front, as the D-line and inside linebackers took away the Bulldogs' normally effective rushing attack and made them one-dimensional, ultimately leading to the three second-half interceptions by the Braves — including two from Aaron Beasley and another game-sealing pick from Jones.
“We had good things, play-action wise, in the first half,” Thomasville head coach Zach Grage said. “We had to get away from some of the things that got us to the dance. That starts with me and ends with me.”
Given the talent level of the Thomasville offense when it's operating on all cylinders, Barron said it truly changed the game upon shutting down the run.
"We've seen them on film and they're really, really good when they can run and throw. They're just more and more difficult to defend," Barron said. "Those interior guys and those inside backers, for them to come out and force them into the passing game, it was the difference that won the game."
The Braves seemingly put it away in the second half on an 11-yard Beasley touchdown run and another touchdown run by Jones. But even up 14, it was never a comfortable lead.
Thomasville overcame a 23-point fourth-quarter deficit in late October to Brooks County, which defeated Callaway on Friday night to stamp its semifinal ticket, and Barron said holding that caliber of talent to 14 points over a 48-minute stretch speaks volumes about his defense.
"So it was never a sense where you could just sit and relax," Barron said. "For them to make those plays, it was just absolutely special."
And now with the opportunity to come home and host the state semifinals it makes the journey even more incredible. The Braves welcome Hapeville Charter to Staples Stadium after the Hornets knocked off defending AA state champion Benedictine on Friday night.
"Obviously, every round the talent level goes up. I haven't seen enough film on Hapeville. I've seen a little bit of them when we were preparing for South Atlanta. You just know right off the bat that there's talent everywhere across the board," Barron said.
"It'll be a new challenge, a new week of preparation. Sunday will be a long meeting for us because we're breaking down so many films. But, heck, what an opportunity. We're excited to be able to get to do that. And I can say this again about the kids. They were excited about the win, but they're not satisfied. They're not looking at, 'OK, we're getting to play 14 games.' That's good enough. That's not what we're playing for."
Thomasville Times-Enterprise Sports Editor David Almeda contributed to this story.