Class 3A blog: Pierce County’s Herring: ‘Never an upset if you plan on winning’

Dec. 30, 2020 - Atlanta, Ga: Pierce County running back DJ Bell (1) scores the game-winning touchdown in overtime to win 13-7 against Oconee County during the Class 3A state high school football final at Center Parc Stadium Wednesday, December 30, 2020 in Atlanta. JASON GETZ FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Dec. 30, 2020 - Atlanta, Ga: Pierce County running back DJ Bell (1) scores the game-winning touchdown in overtime to win 13-7 against Oconee County during the Class 3A state high school football final at Center Parc Stadium Wednesday, December 30, 2020 in Atlanta. JASON GETZ FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Well, we made it.

When you thought we wouldn’t, we did.

When a virus almost shut everything down, including high school sports, we advanced through the football season and crowned a champion.

And just when you thought that the 3A state football title could be gift-wrapped and delivered to one of a few programs – two-time defending champion Cedar Grove, runner-up Crisp County, 4A runner-up Oconee County or yearly challenger Peach County – the Pierce County Bears said “not so fast.’

And just when you thought that Pierce County might have been the underdog in its title game against Oconee County -- a 13-7 championship victory -- coach Ryan Herring had other thoughts.

“I’ve told the kids this several times this season,” he said. “It’s not going to be an upset when you go into the game planning on winning. It’s never an upset if you plan on winning.”

That planning -- including a pre-game defensive play drawn up by assistant coach Swane Morris that later created an interception in overtime – paid off for the top-ranked Bears.

The team-effort victory by Pierce can be – like most close, low-scoring games – boiled down to several game-changing plays. Two interceptions by junior defensive back Daytin Baker and two touchdown runs by sophomore back D.J. Bell added up to Pierce’s first state title.

“To start with the defensive linemen all the way back to defensive backs, to the offensive lineman, to D.J. (Bell) ... everybody poured into the game with all of their hard work and huge, just huge, hearts,” Herring said.

Trailing 7-0, sophomore back Bell scored on a 5-yard run with 7:23 left in the game to tie it. Oconee had its chance on the first possession of overtime, but an underthrown pass from Jacob Wright was intercepted by Baker – his second of the game — to give Pierce the chance to win. The defensive play, designed by Morris, worked to perfection. When Oconee tried to bait the defensive backs with Jake Johnson, a 6-foot-6 wide-out, Baker kept inside.

“Coach Morris actually drew that play up during our pregame defensive meetings,” Herring said. “We had seen (Oconee’s) play before. It wasn’t like they ran it a lot, but we had seen it. And that play is tough because the back leaves the backfield and if you are in man coverage you have to swap off or you have to stay like you are, or the backers have to leave the box and go with the running back. It just so happened that they ran that first play in overtime. Baker did a great job with eye discipline on that play. He could have easily gone with (Johnson), when they used him as a decoy, which is smart. That is a very smart scheme. But (Daytin) didn’t go with the eye candy and when the wing went inside, through the line of scrimmage, (Daytin) baited the quarterback and undercut it for the pick.”

On the ensuing play, Bell scored on the first play from scrimmage to secure the victory, and his name will be heralded in Pierce County for decades to come. The run, a 15-yarder around the left side of the formidable Oconee County defensive line, was the game-winner.

“My dad told me years ago,” said Herring, “If you have to tell a running back where to run the ball, he’s probably not a running back. There were a few times in the game where I thought D.J. didn’t hit stuff where I wanted him to hit it. But I thought back to what my dad taught me -- you can’t tell a running back where to run the ball. They either do it, or they can’t. I knew he could do it. On the game-winning run, I thought he was going to go more inside, but he bounced it out and stiff armed the cornerback and raced into history”

Bell’s stiff arm — which will live in the annals of Pierce County football history forever — provided all the clearance needed for a relaxed run to the end zone.

The play ended a 3A season that almost was not. The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on logistics, and for a spell threatened to shut things down. Each week, a list of cancelled or postponed games was compiled and posted on this website.

It looked bleak.

But the sport survived right through to these final AJC rankings:

Final Class 3A rankings

1. (6) Pierce County (13-1)

2. (2) Oconee County (12-1)

3. (5) Greater Atlanta Christian (12-1)

4. (3) Peach County (9-2)

5. (4) Crisp County (11-2)

6. (1) Cedar Grove (3-5)

7. (7) Rockmart (9-2)

8. (8) Appling County (9-2)

9. (NR) Carver-Atlanta (6-5)

10. (9) Richmond Academy (10-2)

On deck? Basketball.

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