Class A Blog: Irwin County’s Soliday keeps the program rolling during challenging times

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Casey Soliday has taken over as head coach of Irwin County under as difficult a set of circumstances as anyone could imagine.

He was named interim head coach for most of the 2019 season as cancer began to take its toll on legendary coach Buddy Nobles – who led the program to a 67-13 record over his five-year tenure, which included five trips to the state finals and an undefeated season (13-0) and a state championship last season. When Nobles passed away in January, Soliday was named the permanent head coach. Three months later, coronavirus hit Georgia and Ocilla.

So not only was Soliday assigned the task of stepping in for a legend and keeping the program dominant, he had to do so in the middle of a pandemic. Then just days before the season opener against Fitzgerald on September 11 (the first game of the season was supposed to be a week earlier against private champ Eagle’s Landing Christian, but it was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns), Soliday contracted the virus and was hospitalized for a week.

He missed the Fitzgerald game and the second game of the season against Cook, both losses. But Irwin is a perfect 4-0 since Soliday has returned to the sideline fulltime. Now at the midway point, Soliday took a little time to review how the season has gone thus far.

What were your last conversations with coach Nobles like? Did you discuss taking over for him fulltime?

Soliday: “We didn’t talk about that. We talked about the season we had. How proud we were of the team and the coaches.”

What do you think is Nobles' greatest legacy?

“Just his morals and values. His belief in God. He touched so many kids and made their lives better, not just as football players but as young men. For me, I’m not looking at it as I’m replacing him, but just trying to carry on the things that he established – morals, values, work ethic. I just learned so much from him.”

In terms of strategy and style of play, what, if anything, has changed?

“I was an [offensive coordinator] for many years, but came here as the defensive coordinator. I was never a big wing-T guy but when I came here I saw how effective it was. We’ve kept most of the wing-T basics, the blocking rules, things like that. But we’re more spread, and use motion and more play action passes.”

Aside from you getting sick, how has COVID-19 impacted the program?

“For the Fitzgerald game, several of our linemen were quarantined until Thursday, the day before the game. Guys missed so many practices and were not in shape. Then before the Cook game we had five key kids who had to miss the game due to them being around a student in school who had [COVID-19). As our kids have come back, we’ve been able to get more practice time together, get our timing, get in better shape.”

How did the community handle the team starting 0-2, even if both games were against teams from larger classifications?

“This community is really football smart. They knew how much COVID have impacted us and understood that it was going to take some time once we got everybody back and practicing together.”

How do you think the team is playing now?

“Defensively, I think we’re playing really well. Our defensive line, which I thought might be a bit of a weak spot for us, is really coming along. We’re getting better, tackling better. Offensively, our running game is coming along. We’ve got to get more consistent in our passing game.”

Who are some of your players who have stepped up thus far?

“Well, the twins [RB/LB Garland and RB/DB Gabe Benyard, both seniors] are not only great athletes, they are smart football players, on both sides of the ball. [Senior LB/FB] Kam Ward just wills himself to be good. Over the summer, he would work out with the team and then go do extra work. He wants to be good and he does what it takes to be as good as he is. [Senior OL/DE] Jalen Billingsley is really stepping up for us on both the offensive and defensive lines.”

How have you and your staff dealt with being defending state champions?

“We tell them that last year was great. But last year has nothing to do with this year. This is a new group of guys who have to make a name for themselves and for this team. Our senior leadership has been great. We started 0-2 and we really could have fallen off. But the older kids on this team knew we were not ready to play the Fitzgerald game because of our lack of practice time, and the five kids that didn’t play in the Cook game were some of our senior leaders and best players. They knew once we got everybody back, we would be OK.”

What will it take to make another title run?

“We’re going to have to keep improving. We can’t just feel good about where we are and stop growing. And we have to be fortunate and not have a lot of injuries because we don’t have the depth we had last year. People don’t realize that we had three starters out for the finals last season, but we had more depth. We don’t have it as much this year. Hopefully that is something we will be able to build as well, as the season goes on.”

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