We’ll get to the finals previews (courtesy of Georgia High School Football Daily) in a minute, but first we check in with one of the coaches in the finals, Irwin County’s Buddy Nobles.
Nobles, who has led Irwin to the Region 2 title in five of his six seasons in Ocilla, was diagnosed with cancer over the summer. And while he didn’t want the season to turn into an ode to the coach, his team has been on a mission to bring home the program’s second state title ever. Interestingly enough, the last time Irwin (12-0) won a state title was 1975, which is also the last time the team finished the season undefeated (13-0)
Class A Blog: How would you describe this season?
Nobles: “It’s been a tough year. Not just for me and my circumstance but then you add on what happened to Garland Benyard (the junior was nearly killed over the Thanksgiving holiday when he was shot in the chest in a hunting accident). But Casey Soliday has been my interim head coach and I have the best staff in the state. I told our kids and our coaches that I don’t want our seniors to have their season ruined worrying about me. But I’ll tell you I probably get about 15 text messages a day from our player, saying they love me. This whole season has been about a special team and a special community.”
Class A Blog: How are you doing physically?
Nobles: “I’m doing OK. I’ve lost a lot of weight and I feel weak. I’ll restart chemotherapy when I gain some more weight.
Class A Blog: How has the team reacted to the season?
Nobles: “This year has been no different in that every year we talk about taking it one game at a time, and winning the region championship. The fact that we’ve done I now five out of six years shows the talent we have and the support we have. Between our superintendent, Thad Clayton, and our principal, Scott Haskins, sometimes I think my name is coach “What Can We Do For You.” They have been unbelievable. But you don’t win without talent, and we have some talented kids who’ve been really focused this season.”
Class A Blog: What would you say the key has been this season?
Nobles: “Our defensive line with Ramont Edge, Kavon Carter and JyQuez Marshall has really turned things up. But our offensive line has played well, too. We knew we had some great skill kids with a lot of speed on both sides of the ball. But our offensive line has matured and even though we’ve had some kids go down there, they haven’t faltered.”
Class A Blog: Would you say they have been the most pleasant surprise this season?
Nobles: “Yes. That group has been great. Our tight ends Nathan Roberts and Eli Roberts (not related); tackles Marquez Johnson, Ethan Apperson, Ethan Adkison, Noah Brown and William Johnson; guards Toby Brown, Jalen Billingsley and Antawii Deans and our center Harmon Smith. I’m probably most proud of this group.”
PRIVATE (Friday, 10 a.m.)
No. 9 Wesleyan (12-2) vs. No. 5 Eagle’s Landing Christian (12-1)
This is a matchup of Region 5 foes. ELCA won the regular season game, 54-17, back on October 4. Eagle's Landing Christian is bidding for a state-record fifth consecutive championship. Wesleyan is after its second overall, first since 2008. In the regular-season meeting between the two, Keaton Mitchell rushed for 135 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries, and Philip Massengale rushed for 107 and two touchdowns on seven carries and caught a 52-yard TD pass. Gabe Wright was 8-of-15 passing for 171 yards and three touchdowns, two to Justin Robinson, the Georgia-committed wide receiver. Mitchell has 1,838 yards rushing for the season and 5,694 for his career with 119 touchdowns. Wesleyan has won eight straight games since the ELCA loss as sophomores QB J.C. French (2,408 yards passing, 28 touchdowns), RB Griffin Caldwell (996 yards rushing, 11 touchdowns) and WR Cooper Blauser (841 yards receiving, six touchdowns) have continued to develop. As ball carriers, they get much of the ink, but the team's best overall player is four-year starter Tanner Bivens, the school's best lineman since David Andrews. LB Josh Aspinwall, DB Trent Bartlett and WR Micah Smith are other integral senior leaders.
PUBLIC (Saturday, 10 a.m.)
No. 2 Marion County (11-2) vs. No. 1 Irwin County (12-0)
This is the teams' first meeting. Irwin County appears to be a team of destiny this season as it goes for its first state championship since 1975. The Indians have spent a good portion of the season without head coach Buddy Nobles, who is battling cancer that was diagnosed over the summer; D.J. Lundy, the 2018 Class A public offensive player of the year, who missed time early in the season with an injury; and Garland Benyard, who has been out for the playoffs after being wounded in an accidental shooting. Through it all, they have rolled their 12 opponents by an average score of 41-5. And Irwin finally got past its playoff tormentor, Region 2 rival Clinch County, which had beaten the Indians in the state final three times in the past four years despite losing to Irwin in the regular season each time. Irwin beat Clinch 36-0 last week. The Indians are doing it with the state's top defense, which has scored 62 points of its own while giving up just 56. Marion County, a semifinalist last season and a state champ in 2013, will try to solve Irwin's defense with an offense led by QB Trice McCannon, who has passed for 2,185 yards and 30 touchdowns and run for 974 yards and 18 TDs. Brandon Thomas has rushed for 991 yards and six touchdowns. Marion County has won eight consecutive games since back-to-back losses to Bleckley County (43-28) and Manchester (43-14) in September. The Eagles are averaging 34.6 points per game and allowing 18.7.
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