NEWNAN — Briar Van Brunt sat in agony on the sideline last week as his team pulled out a triple-overtime win over Peachtree Ridge in the GHSA Class AAAAA state quarterfinals.
But it wasn’t the bruised sternum that the junior quarterback suffered in the first half that hurt the most.
It was not being out there with his teammates.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “I hate being on the sidelines during the game when my team is out there. I just love to play the game. I love this sport.”
Northside (13-1) leaned heavily on its quarterback on Friday at Drake Stadium, and he responded with the best game of his short career.
Van Brunt rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown and passed for another as the Eagles beat previously undefeated Newnan 29-24 to earn a spot in the state championship game for the fourth time in five years. Northside will play Camden County in the championship game on Saturday at the Georgia Dome. Camden County beat Northside in the second round of the playoffs last year in Kingsland.
“It says a lot about what (Van Brunt) has in his heart to come out and play like he did (Friday),” Northside senior safety Brandon Brown said. “He put it all on the line.”
Van Brunt started hot, leading the Eagles to four third-down conversions on their opening drive, which ending in his 5-yard touchdown run.
It was a sign of things to come for Van Brunt and the Eagles. The quarterback methodically carved up a Newnan defense that had allowed more than 10 points twice in 13 games and held its three playoff opponents to 22 combined points.
But Van Brunt turned out to be the perfect weapon against the Cougars. He’s thin, slippery and almost always falls forwards for extra yardage. He spent most of Friday night darting into small creases and coming out with first downs.
“I can’t say enough about (Van Brunt),” Northside head coach Conrad Nix said. “He just kept running and kept running.”
Van Brunt picked up 10 first downs alone on the ground in the game, with most of his runs going for 5 or yards. He only had two runs longer than 10 yards. The longest was a 23-yard run in which he shrugged off Newnan safety Alec Ogeltree, the Georgia commitment who is considered one of the top safeties in the nation.
“(I had) so much I wanted to prove to people, I just played my heart out,” Van Brunt said. “I played as hard as I could.”
Northside’s two biggest drives featured heavy does of Van Brunt.
After stopping Newnan on fourth-and-1 near midfield with 2:30 to play in the first half, Van Brunt found Quin Greene for a 21-yard completion. He had another completion to Cartell Brooks on a third-and-6, and picked up a first down with a 16-yard run. The Eagles moved down to the 4-yard line with under a minute to play, but two Van Brunt runs came up short of the end zone. With no timeouts left, Shaquille O’Neill scored on a 2-yard run on third-and-goal with nine seconds left in the half to put Northside up 20-14.
The Eagles and Cougars traded field goals in the third quarter before Van Brunt and the Eagles’ offense struck again.
Northside marched for a 13-play, 69-yard clock-eating drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown by O’Neill that gave the Eagles a 29-17 lead with 8:38 to play. On the drive, Van Brunt had the ball in his hands for all but two plays, both runs by O’Neill that started and ended the drive. The quarterback ran the ball on designed draws on five straight plays during one stretch of the drive.
“I loved (the calls),” Van Brunt said. “It means (Nix) counts on me. He knows I can get the job done. ... The fact that he’s that comfortable with me doing that, I’m thankful for him.”
Perhaps lost in the shuffle could be the second-half defensive effort turned in by the Eagles. Take away the final drive of the game, where a deflection off cornerback Brison Williams’ chest turned into a long completion and eventually a touchdown drive, and the Eagles’ defense held an explosive offense to three points in the second half.
“I really thought we stepped up and met the challenge in the second half,” Brown said. “We let our guard down at the end. We might have been thinking about next week. But we played strong defense the rest of the half.”