DEKALB — For 47 minutes, the Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley offense ran with relative ease on the Maroa-Forsyth defense.
For 47 minutes, the Trojans' offense had an answer.
But Maroa ran out of answers after Nathan Garard darted a pass between Trojans Charlie Hubbard and Tanner Falk to Bryce Barnes, who left his feet on a diving catch, for the Falcons on what turned out to be the game-winning grab in GCMS's 38-32 win over Maroa-Forsyth in the Class 2A state football championship game.
“Obviously, (Barnes) is a man, there’s a reason why he’s an all-stater,” Maroa-Forsyth coach Josh Jostes said. “That’s a heck of a catch he has in the end zone. I only saw it one time live, but it was a heck of a catch.”
GCMS coach Mike Allen was also impressed.
“What a great game,” Allen said. “That was a great high school football game between two very good teams and two very good programs.
"Bryce made a heck of a catch and Nathan made a great throw.”
Following the GCMS touchdown, the explosive Maroa offense still had 1:08 to play to manufacture its own magic.
“It was pretty amazing, but we had to go back out on defense, so the defense did their job,” Barnes said.
Back-to-back penalties and a heavy pass rush stopped the Trojans before they could start. Benner completed his final three passes, but Maroa never moved past its own 26-yard line.
Benner, a sophomore, completed 17 of 27 passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns in his state debut.
“It was a battle,” Benner said. “Penalties definitely killed us at the end. I felt like we came out and played well today. We couldn’t get the ball there in the end zone a couple of times there in the third and the beginning for the fourth.”
Maroa senior Aaron Inda accounted for three touchdowns — two rushing and one receiving — on his way to a combined 99 yards.
Maroa's 32 points was the most scored against GCMS this season.
"If you would have told me we would have scored 32 coming into the game, I would have felt very good about our chances," Jostes said. "For 47 minutes, I still liked our chances."
With Maroa leading 26-23 early in the fourth quarter, GCMS running back Jared Trantina broke free for 47 yards down the sideline before he was finally pulled down by Inda. Two plays later, Brooks Schmitt scored his lone touchdown of the game on an 11-yard run to give GCMS a 30-26 lead with 9:13 left in the game.
On the next Maroa drive, Benner faked an option to Deondre Gregory and flipped it to Inda, who won a 52-yard foot race to the end zone on a third-and-11 play. It gave Maroa a 33-30 lead.
“After that, I felt pretty confident in our chances of winning the ball game,” Inda said. “I felt like our defense was going to get a stop and it just didn’t happen."
But GCMS answered, as it did all game, with a steady diet of running from Trantina (137 yards) and Mitch McNutt (139 yards, 3 TDs) before the touchdown reception from Barnes.
The Falcons averaged 5.8 yards per carry. Garard needed to throw just three passes, the backs did the rest.
“It was a tough day all around,” said Maroa's Spencer Hawbaker, who had 11 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. “Their running backs are very physical and very good. They came at us every play, we just couldn’t match that for parts of the game. They made big plays when we weren’t. They earned it.”
Deondre Gregory, Maroa's all-state running back, rushed 20 times for 128 yards and a touchdown.
Inda opened the game with a screen pass from Benner, which he took 55 yards for a touchdown.
With 57 seconds left in the first, Benner found Max Davenport on a 16-yard touchdown pass to give Maroa a 12-7 lead.
Maroa led 19-15 at halftime.
“They were a very good team, a very good offense, fast,” GCMS linebacker Luke Freehill said. “In the first half we didn’t break down and wrap up very well. Part of it was we were nervous at first, then got into the game, got used to it and we knew what we had to do. That was a great second half.”
It's the second consecutive runner-up finish for the Trojans after a loss to Deer Creek-Mackinaw last season.
But the Trojans didn't return their leading passer, rusher, receiver or tackler from the state championship game last season. It was essentially a new team of major contributors, save for Gregory.
"Our coaching staff is one of the best,” Inda said. “No matter what, we’re going to be good every year. It’s a program, everyone buys in. Anything less than state is a failure in our eyes.”
Jostes may have been somewhat surprised at Barnes' game-winning touchdown. Not because quarterback Garard didn't have the ability to throw the ball — he had more than 1,000 yards passing this season — but because it appeared GCMS would milk the clock for a chance at a game-winning field goal.
But his players were in place, Garard threaded a needle and Barnes came up with the play.
After a 35-7 loss to Deer Creek-Mackinaw last season, the Trojans appeared to be in place to get the ultimate redemption Friday.
But the two losses couldn't have played out differently.
The Trojans gave GCMS everything it could handle, setting up the second epic finish among H&R area teams (Tuscola lost 21-20 to Lena-Winslow in Class 1A).
“It was a dog fight. Gibson City is a heck of a ball club, my hat’s off to them,” Jostes said. “That’s what a state championship should look like. It came down to the last possession, the last minute of the ballgame. That’s what they’re supposed to look like.”