Fitzgerald, Irwin County to play for football state crowns

Irwin County’s Gabriel Benyard (12) knocks a pass away from Marion County during the 2019 state finals. Irwin returns there next week to take on Brooks County.

TIFTON — Santa Claus is not scheduled to arrive just yet, but Fitzgerald and Irwin County football fans might believe he has already made his way down the chimney. The two schools punched their ticket to the Georgia High School Association state football finals, to be held early next week in Atlanta at Center Parc Stadium.

Irwin County is slated to play region rival Brooks County Dec. 28 at 7 p.m. Fitzgerald kicks off the next day of action with a game against Callaway at noon. All contests will be aired by Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Fitzgerald enters as the No. 1 team in Class 2A, having vanquished Jefferson County last week, 24-0. This was their second win over the Warriors in 2020, having defeated them 14-12 in Louisville on Sept. 25. That game had been quickly scheduled after Fitzgerald’s original opponent, Dodge County, had to go into quarantine.

The Purple Hurricane have roared through the season. Of their 13 opponents, 10 victories have been by a 10 points or more. The few under that includes a 29-28 squeaker over Thomasville, which saw a Fitzgerald fumble turn into a deciding safety in their favor.

Thomasville was knocked out of the playoffs by Callaway, the Hurricane’s opponent next Tuesday.

Callaway, which in tandem with Tank Bigsby knocked out Fitzgerald last season, is an 11-1 program in 2020. The Cavaliers, which have their origins in old Hogansville High, may be a bit fresher. They have only had to play three playoff games after Banks County forfeited in the first round.

The Cavaliers’ only loss was to Haralson County. Callaway has yet to win a state title. Their only meeting with Fitzgerald was last year.

If the Purple Hurricane can win, it would be their first state championship since 1948. They have been to five finals since, the most recent in 2016.

Irwin is in its seventh final in eight years. Under first-year head coach Casey Soliday, Irwin is 11-3 after starting 0-2. Both losses were when the team was missing players because of quarantine.

They are in the finals having defeated Metter on the road, 44-10. Going into the contest, Metter was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the state. Kam Ward scored twice for Irwin, which also had a long interception returned for a touchdown.

On the other side of the line, Brooks County will be looking for revenge after Irwin edged them 21-13 for their only loss way back on Oct. 9. The Trojans, runners-up in Class 2A last year, have given up a total of 14 points in four playoff games. In the semifinals, they yielded absolutely nothing in a 42-0 pasting of Clinch County, not only another region opponent but the last team to defeat Irwin.

The Trojans have not won a title since head coach Maurice Freeman’s crew defeated Manchester in 1994.

Brooks and Irwin have met few times over the years, despite both usually being powerhouse programs. Before the October game, their last meeting had been in 2003. The Trojans are 5-4 overall in the series.

Across Georgia last week, five of Tift County’s 2020 football opponents competed in the semifinals round, Lowndes, Grayson, Lee County, Crisp County and Irwin County. Three will be in finals. Seven of Tift’s nine opponents advanced to the quarterfinals. Had the Blue Devils been able to stick to an earlier schedule, they could boast seven opponents active in the semis as both Coffee and Valdosta lost games last week.

Flag football finals will also be held on Dec. 28, before the football championships. The first-year sport for girls is to play semifinals today. In classes 6A-7A, the semifinal contests are between Hillgrove and Allatoona and West Forsyth and South Forsyth; for classes 1A-5A, semifinals are Northside (Columbus) versus Calvary Day and Greenbrier vs. Portal.

Other football finals are:

Dec. 28

Class A private — Prince Avenue Christian vs. Trinity Christian, 3:30 p.m.

Dec. 29

Class 4A — Jefferson vs. Marist, 3:30 p.m.

Class 6A — Buford vs. Lee County, 7 p.m.

Dec. 30

Class 3A — Oconee County vs. Pierce County, noon.

Class 5A — Cartersville vs. Warner Robins, 3:30 p.m.

Class 7A — Collins Hill vs. Grayson.

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