DEKALB — As Nathan Garard scrambled and weaved his way into the end zone on a 13-yard run with 1:20 left, the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley High School junior quarterback was stunned.
“I thought our fans should be going crazy right now,” said Garard. “It was dead quiet, and I turned around and saw the flag.”
A holding penalty negated Garard's score. However, it didn't faze his or the Falcons' resolve.
Two plays later, Garard put a picture-perfect pass between two defenders for a 23-yard touchdown to a leaping Bryce Barnes with 1:08 left in Friday's back-and-forth Class 2A State championship football game against Maroa-Forsyth at Huskie Stadium.
The same pair hooked up for a two-point conversion. When Barnes tackled Charlie Hubbard on the final play, GCMS stormed the field after a 38-32 victory for its first state title was secure.
When asked how many times this season the Falcons had completed the pass that will never be forgotten in his school's history, Barnes smiled.
“Zero,” said the GCMS tight end. “That's a one-time thing, I think. The ball stuck in my hands and I pulled it in. I got up and the ref signaled for a touchdown. I almost lost it. It was crazy.”
Yet Barnes couldn't completely lose his mind. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior had to get back on the field at his defensive tackle spot and try to hold off Maroa-Forsyth's potent offense one more time.
When the Trojans faced fourth-and-14 at their own 26-yard line with two seconds left, Barnes still could not celebrate.
“I was trying not to lose it. I was already getting emotional,” he said. “I was, like, keep it in, two seconds left.'
"I did not try to rush the quarterback too much. I was kind of shadowing him to see where he went, make sure he did not get anywhere. Then he passed and I made the tackle, and I was emotional after that.”
Barnes, who had six tackles, seemed an unlikely offensive hero. Coming into the game, he had caught a modest 13 passes for 286 yards and three TDs as the Falcons rode the powerful running of Mitch McNutt and Jared Trantina.
Garard had only completed two of seven attempts before finding Barnes in the end zone on a third-and-18 play.
“We were just trying a hitch for a first down, and Nathan kept the play alive,” said GCMS coach Mike Allen. “We were going to throw to Ryland Holt. Nathan did a great job keeping the ball alive there.”
Barnes figured his number wasn't going to be called often.
“We knew we were not going to pass a lot,” he said. “We knew the wind was against us during part of the game and knew our offensive line would push for our running backs to get through. When he called the play I said, 'OK, Bryce, you have to make a play. We're going to win this thing.'
“Nate put a perfect pass on, the line did a great job blocking and I just went up and caught it.”
Most expected GCMS' defense, which had allowed a state-low 6.2 points per game coming in, to lead the way. But Maroa-Forysth was able to roll up 402 yards. The Trojans scored three touchdowns on third downs and another on fourth down.
The Falcons did seem to get Maroa-Forsyth under control after giving up a 36-yard TD run to Deondre Gregory early in the third quarter that put the Trojans ahead, 26-15.
But Aaron Inda's 52-yard TD run on a reverse with 6:26 left wiped out GCMS' 30-26 lead.
“They had a good offense and were fast,” said GCMS senior linebacker Luke Freehill, who had eight tackles. “In the first half we were not breaking down and wrapping up very well. Part was nerves at first, but we got into the game and got used to it.
"We had a great second half, just one reverse play we were not ready for. The fourth quarter was phenomenal.”
Freehill didn't envision GCMS giving up 32 points. Yet the long-haired emotional leader of the Falcons defense said that was cool.
“One thing we hate is giving up points, but we hate losing more,” he said. “At the end of the day that's what broke through. We weren't going to lose and were going to do what we had to.”