The best season in the history of Heard County High School football finished in heartbreaking fashion on Friday night in a last-second setback in the Class AA state semifinals.
In a battle for the ages against fellow No. 1 seed Hapeville Charter, the Braves delivered a gutsy performance for the duration of the 48-minute contest, but a Hornet score with 5.3 seconds remaining proved to be the difference in the 28-21 barnburner at Staples Stadium.
Hapeville Charter (13-1), which advances to face Rabun County (14-0) in the state championship game next Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, was able to get a critical fourth-down stop at the Heard County 43-yard line with 50 seconds remaining in a 21-all affair to take possession.
Following three straight runs and a false start penalty that moved the ball back to the 20-yard line with the clock winding down, Hornet tailback Marcus Carroll broke free for the 20-yard touchdown run for the game-winning score and gut-wrenching finish.
On the ensuing kickoff, Jaden Moreland was able to dance around a few defenders before being brought down and ultimately ending an incredible season, as well as the career for an accomplished group of Heard County seniors.
Veteran Brave head coach Tim Barron was extremely proud of the tremendous effort from his ballclub on Friday night. He was visibly disappointed in the painful turn of events in the closing moments, but he said it certainly doesn't take away from the guts and grit his guys displayed against the heavily-favored Hornets.
"They played as hard as I could possibly ask them to play. That one's on me. That call at the end of the game, I wish I could take it back. Lord knows I do. But I can't," Barron said.
Entering the fourth quarter knotted up at 21-all, the Braves (12-2) had their chances to retake the lead — they held 14-7 and 21-14 advantages earlier in the evening — but both ballclubs made some huge plays down the stretch to counter each other and keep it tied until the final seconds.
After the Hornets scored on a one-yard keeper by quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams at the 1:34 mark of the third quarter to pull even at 21-21, the Braves had a turnover on downs at their own 37, but the defense rose to the occasion and forced the first punt of the night, a kick that pinned the Heard County offense at its own 3-yard line.
The Braves were able to drive to their own 44 before senior quarterback Emory Jones' long heave was intercepted at the Hornet 6-yard line with 7:06 remaining in the contest.
Once again, the Heard County defense stood tall, forcing a three-and-out and another punt from the Hornet 9.
Getting the ball back with 5:43 to play in regulation, Heard had another promising drive going when Aaron Beasley fumbled at the 20-yard line with 3:02 to go.
Following another three-and-out, Alijah Huzzie called for a fair catch at the Brave 39.
With 1:41 left on the clock and two timeouts, the Braves ran four straight run plays, the last of which was a Jet sweep to Moreland on fourth-and-one from the 48 that lost five yards against the No. 1 defense in Class AA.
Given the last-minute opportunity, Williams and the Hapeville offense wouldn't be denied this time, ending a back-and-forth thriller that unfortunately left the Braves with the hard-fought loss. Williams rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, while completing 7-of-14 attempts for 90 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
"The defense played really hard. Their quarterback, he's just so athletic. He turns broken plays into first downs and kept the chains moving and all those things," Barron said. "But the bottom line, it comes down to that last call."
The game proved to be a see-saw affair right from the start, as the Hornets took the opening drive and marched 56 yards on nine plays, taking the early 7-0 edge on a 15-yard touchdown pass from Williams to Andunte Devereux at the 7:46 mark of the first quarter.
The Braves answered right back, converting a fourth down on a Jones run and then the Heard County senior signal-caller lofted a deep ball toward the end zone that initially appeared to be pulled down by a Hapeville defender for an interception, but Moreland wound up with the ball at the bottom of the skirmish and it set up first-and-goal from the one.
Two plays later, Beasley knotted the game up at 7-all on a one-yard rush with 5.4 ticks left on the first-quarter clock.
On the first play of the ensuing Hornet drive, Huzzie stepped in front of a Williams offering and raced 50 yards down the visiting sidelines for a pick-six 11 seconds into the second quarter to give the Braves a huge shot of momentum and a 14-7 lead.
This time, it was the Hornets who answered as a 15-yard penalty after the touchdown and a pre-kick penalty set up the visitors at the Braves' 41-yard line. Hapeville needed just five plays to tie the game on a 27-yard strike from Williams to Antawan Smith, Jr. with 9:15 remaining in the half.
The Braves escaped disaster on the next drive after a fumble at the Heard 39 was returned right back to the home squad when Kendaz Goode snared a Hornet fumble two plays later, giving Heard County the ball at its own 30.
With an opportunity to take the lead into the locker room, Heard County got down to the 5-yard line late in half, but a delay of game penalty and a sack put HC back at the 22-yard line on fourth-and-19 and Jones' pass into the end zone was incomplete with 11.6 seconds left.
But getting the ball to start the second half, Heard County went right back to work and put together an impressive 10-play, 69-yard drive, where Beasley broke off a 35-yard touchdown run to put the Braves back on top at 21-14.
Unfortunately, that would mark the final score for Heard County, which was led by a solid effort from its offensive line against a huge Hapeville defensive front seven, as well as the performances from Jones, Beasley and Moreland offensively
Beasley rushed for a game-high 139 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries, while Jones added 118 yards on 19 carries to go along with 86 yards through the air. Moreland hauled in three receptions for 71 yards.
"It was just great effort. I couldn't be more proud of the kids and more disappointed for them. They played well enough to win the ballgame," Barron said.
Setting a school-record for single-season wins at 12 and making it to Game 14 for the first time in school history is a legacy that this senior class leaves as the new benchmark for Heard County football.
Barron said he would have loved to give these guys one more game, but they will still go down as a special class and, more than anything, winners on and off the field.
"That was a special group of seniors. Emory has been a starter from Day 1 and has won a lot of football games for us and played his heart out for this team. Him, Jaden and all that senior bunch, Kendaz, I'm just so proud of those young men," Barron said.