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Class A Public: Irwin County 27, Brooks County 19

For the second season in a row, Irwin County had to fight through a season of adversity. And for the second season in a row the Indians came through it as champions.

Irwin County (12-3) went on a 20-0 spurt in the first half Monday at Center Parc Stadium and hung on to defeat Brooks County 27-19 to win its second consecutive Class A Public state title.

Last season, Irwin County played with heavy hearts as head coach Buddy Nobles battled terminal cancer. He passed away in January after watching his team win its first state championship since 1975. This season, the team fought through three quarantine periods due to COVID-19. Head coach Casey Soliday missed the first two games of the season – both non-region losses to Class 2A programs – as he contracted the virus.

“These suckers have been so dedicated from the start,” Soliday said of his senior class. “They did extra workouts to make up for the practices we missed because of COVID. They have just persevered through a lot. Losing coach Nobles last season, and COVID this year. No group deserves this more than these kids. I can’t say enough about them.”

On the field, the seniors that did the most damage Monday night were the Benyard twins, Gabriel and Garland. The duo combined for 300 yards of total offense and Gabriel, a running back/defensive back, scored two touchdowns while Garland, a receiver/linebacker, had three tackles and a sack.

Garland was unable to play last season as he recovered from a wound he suffered during an accidental shooting. This game meant a lot to him.

“It was hard to watch last year,” he said. “This year, I knew I had to make a comeback. I knew I just had to play with no regrets.”

Both teams came out smoking on offense, with Brooks County striking first. The Trojans (13-2) took advantage of a short kickoff and started their opening drive at their 42-yard line. From there, senior quarterback Ni’Tavion Burrus led them on a nine-play, 58-yard drive, punctuated by a 35-yard touchdown pass to junior Willie Brown.

On the play, the right-handed Burrus rolled to his left and flipped a pass into the flat to Brown, who beat one defender and sprinted past the rest of the Irwin County secondary into the end zone. Regan Chaistain’s extra point kick gave the Trojans a quick 7-0 lead.

Irwin County answered immediately, with Gabriel Benyard doing almost all of the damage. Of the four plays in the 65-yard scoring drive, he touched the ball three times for 56 yards, including the final 35 when he sped off right tackle, dipped to the sideline and sprinted into the end zone. The extra point kick was no good, keeping Brooks County ahead, 7-6, midway through the first quarter.

Irwin County’s kickoff team penned Brooks County deep in its own territory and the defense forced the Trojans into a three-and-out. After a short punt, Irwin County took over on the Brooks County 35-yard line. The Trojan defense made it difficult but Irwin County went up 13-7 as Gabriel Benyard skipped in from two-yards out, capping a 10-play scoring drive that included two fourth-down conversions, both passes to a Benyard – a 14-yarder to Gabriel on fourth-and-five, and an 11-yarder to Garland on fourth-and-seven.

Irwin County’s defense stayed stingy on Brooks County’s next possession, as Garland Benyard stopped Brooks County junior running back Omari Arnold on fourth-and-one from the Irwin County 43-yard line. The Irwin County offense took advantage when sophomore quarterback Cody Soliday hit Gabriel Benyard with a 53-yard touchdown pass down the middle of the field to give Irwin County a 20-7 lead. The pass was nearly intercepted by the Brooks County defender, but he miss-timed his jump and Gabriel Benyard caught it and danced into the end zone.

Brooks County came up empty for the third consecutive offensive series, but this time the Trojan’s defense stepped up and forced Irwin County to punt for the first time in the game, with just under three minutes left in the half. The Trojans offense responded with a seven-play, 61-yard drive, that Arnold topped off with a 15-yard touchdown run up the middle to cut the Irwin County lead to 20-13 at halftime.

Irwin County put the game away for good midway through the third quarter when senior defensive back Derrick Taylor stepped in front of Burrus’ pass intended for sophomore Jamal Sanders along the far sideline and raced 34 yards for a touchdown. It was his second consecutive game with a pick-six as he returned an interception 100 yards in the semifinal win over Metter.

“I’m so proud of these kids, this school and this community. And don’t think coach Nobles was not on our minds,” Soliday said, pointing to a wristband he wears in honor of Nobles. “A lot of the character of this team comes from him.”

Brooks County 7 6 0 6 19

Irwin County 13 7 7 0 27

BC – Willie Brown 35 pass from Ni’Tavion Burrus (Regan Chaistain kick)

IC – Gabriel Benyard 35 run (kick failed)

IC – Gabriel Benyard 2 run (Evan Ross kick)

IC – Gabriel Benyard 53 pass from Cody Soliday (Ross kick)

BC – Omari Arnold 15 run (Chaistain kick)

IC – Derrick Taylor 34 interception return (Ross kick)

BC – Brown 13 pass from Burrus (kick blocked)

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