Storybook finish: SIA wins Class 1A title on Jackson’s walk-off touchdown
Published 9:14 pm Thursday, November 16, 2023
JACKSON — There was only one way for Sharkey-Issaquena Academy to finish its storybook football season — with an improbable movie script ending that included a huge comeback, a walk-off touchdown and a state championship celebration.
SIA overcame a 20-point deficit, capped by Gary Jackson’s wild, weaving 35-yard touchdown run as time expired, to beat Calhoun Academy 32-26 in the MAIS Class 1A championship game on Thursday.
“How amazing has the last eight months been? We talked about adversity, you can’t get any deeper or darker at halftime than that and come out and do what we did,” SIA coach Matt Homan said. “Like we talked about yesterday with adversity, these kids aren’t scared of it. They stayed the course, they figured it out and the results are on the scoreboard.”
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Raising the championship trophy was the final chapter in a story fit for a Disney sports movie.
The Confederates had a 2-8 record last season and forfeited their playoff game vs. Riverdale because they did not have enough healthy players.
In March, an EF-4 tornado devastated their hometown of Rolling Fork. For several months afterward, SIA’s gym was transformed into a distribution center for relief supplies.
On Thursday, hundreds of supporters came to Jackson Academy and watched their friends, family and neighbors reach the pinnacle of the sport.
“My hat is off to the kids, and the community for backing us and how great they are. You see this, and it’s an amazing thing, man,” Homan said, pointing to dozens of SIA fans who came on the field after the game to take pictures with his players. “It’s a Cinderella story, fairybook ending, you can’t write stories like that. It’s a great thing for the whole state. It’s a great thing for our area, our family, our friends, people at SIA, all the small towns, this is for them.”
SIA won its third MAIS 8-man championship overall, and the first since going back-to-back in 2014. It has had some success in recent years, but bottomed out last season. The 2023 squad put the program back on top and provided a bright moment in a very difficult year for both the school and the community.
“We did something great for the community. We had to bring it back for them,” Jackson said.
Final: Sharkey-Issaquena Academy 32, Calhoun Academy 26.
SIA’s Gary Jackson with the game-winning 35-yard touchdown run as time expires.
SIA wins the MAIS Class 1A State Championship. pic.twitter.com/RzuAmnWpxC
— Brandon Shields (@bshields0244) November 16, 2023
The championship game itself echoed the Confederates’ journey.
Calhoun Academy (10-2) — which itself was trying to finish a Cinderella story after going 4-7 in 2022 — dominated the first half and led 20-0 at halftime.
Calhoun quarterback Coley Denton had two of his three rushing touchdowns in the first half, as the Cougars piled up 218 yards on the ground. They finished the game with 447 rushing yards. Denton had 73, while Easton Dishman had 247 and one touchdown on 28 carries and Layton Logan had 127 yards on 11 carries.
SIA (12-1) only ran 10 offensive plays in the first half, one of which was an interception on its first snap. The turnover led to Calhoun’s first touchdown on a 30-yard run by Denton.
“It felt terrible. I think we just realized what we needed to do, and how to do it, and we executed,” SIA junior defensive end Aiden Allen said.
In the second half, Jackson got the Confederates going and never stopped. Normally a running back or receiver, he was moved to quarterback and ran 52 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the third quarter.
Calhoun was stopped on downs at the 3-yard line on its next possession and Jackson went 97 yards on the Feds’ next snap to cut it 20-14 with 4:06 left in the third quarter.
SIA had 40 total yards in the first half, and Jackson had one carry for one yard. He had two for 149 yards in the third quarter. He finished the game with 211 rushing yards and three touchdowns on six carries.
“It changed tempo,” Jackson said of his first touchdown. “Everybody started feeding off my energy, so they started doing well.”
Calhoun answered with a scoring drive capped by Denton’s 1-yard TD to make it 26-14 heading into the fourth quarter. SIA had Jackson, though, and the senior continued his transformation from mild-mannered football player to the Hulk by throwing a 53-yard TD pass to Damarion Stamps to pull the Feds back within one score just two plays into the fourth quarter.
Jackson added a big play on defense on Calhoun’s next possession. Dishman broke a long run on fourth-and-4 from his own 39 and Jackson ran him down to make the tackle at the SIA 9 to set up another goal line stand.
Denton was stopped twice on runs from the 1-yard line to force a turnover on downs. Two plays later, Corderrius Jackson took a handoff and went 94 yards to the end zone. The two-point conversion was no good, leaving the score tied at 26.
While SIA’s explosive offense provided the spark to get it back in the game, the defense also came up time and again. The Feds forced two turnovers on downs inside the 5-yard line and three others inside the 30. It also stopped three two-point conversion tries.
Brady Brooks had 19 total tackles, including 14 solos, for SIA. Heath Vanlandingham and Gary Jackson had nine each.
“All those two-point conversions that we stopped is the difference in the game, too. That’s a whole other touchdown. The thing about 8-man, those two-point conversions go a long way,” Homan said. “The defense played great. (Calhoun’s) a tough football team. I still can’t believe we beat them.”
Calhoun got the ball back with 3:15 left and was driving, until a unique quirk of the MAIS championship games stopped the Cougars in their tracks and set up SIA for a miracle finish.
On third-and-9 from the SIA 33, Denton was under pressure and threw the ball up for grabs to Logan, who was surrounded by three SIA defenders. All four players jumped for the ball, and the pass fell incomplete but a penalty flag was thrown for pass interference.
Homan responded by challenging the call through instant replay.
Because the MAIS livestreams its championship games through its in-house production network and has a number of cameras available, it implemented a replay challenge system in 2018. Coaches are given two challenges in addition to those ordered by the game officials, and Homan elected to use one of them on the pass interference call.
Homan won, and instead of a first down for Calhoun at the 18-yard line, the ball was moved back to the 33 and it was fourth-and-9. Logan was stopped for a short gain for another turnover on downs with 27 seconds left.
“I didn’t know we had dropped it. I wanted to challenge that it was a dropped interception and they gave me back my second timeout,” Homan said. “I got the best of both worlds on that one. It gave me a good spot and it gave me my second timeout back. You can challenge anything.”
Considering SIA had scored four touchdowns on six snaps in the second half, there was little chance of it settling for overtime — and no doubt who would get the ball.
Gary Jackson ripped off a 20-yard run on the first play of the drive, then Corderrius Jackson ran for 11 more on the second. SIA called timeout with nine seconds left and dialed up Gary Jackson’s No. 7 one more time to try and get them six.
Jackson dropped back to pass, but was rushed and flushed to his left.
“The play was called for a throw but it crashed down so I took off running,” Jackson said. “What’s going through my head was score. Go get in the end zone one time.”
Jackson broke out of the pocket and headed up the left sideline. The defense closed in when he got inside the 10, but he cut back inside at the 3-yard line and juked one last defender to get into the end zone with a miraculous walk-off touchdown.
“We’ve been fast all year. You give those kids that much of a crease and they’re gone,” Homan said. “It’s just great. It’s an amazing feeling. It’s a great ending to a great story — a tragic story, but it has a great ending to it.”