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‘Long time coming’ meets ‘end of an era’ as Gray earns first trip to state title game

·5 min read

Newberry High School played it close with Gray Collegiate Academy on Friday night at Fairfield Central’s E.K. McLendon Stadium, but once again KZ Adams kept the War Eagles moving on — this time to the 2A state championship game.

Adams surpassed the 3,000-yard rushing mark on the year with his 260 yards and two touchdowns as Gray Collegiate held off the Bulldogs 35-28 in the 2A Upper State finals.

“Unbelievable player, best player I’ve ever coached,” Gray Collegiate head coach Adam Holmes said, adding that the win is a sizable benchmark for the program.

“I’m just excited for our guys and our school, the amazing administrative support that we have here,” Holmes said. “It’s taken eight years to get to this point, and I’m just happy for our program.”

The War Eagles (13-1) will take on Silver Bluff for the 2A crown next Friday night — Dec. 3 — at Benedict College’s Charlie W. Johnson Stadium. Silver Bluff outlasted Barnwell 42-35 Friday night in the Lower State championship.

For Newberry head coach Phil Strickland, Friday night marked his last night on the sidelines as a head coach.

Strickland, a South Carolina high school football Hall of Famer, announced his retirement last summer effective at the end of this season. He spent 40 years as a coach, 34 as a head coach in South Carolina.

Strickland coached at Ridge Spring-Monetta, Brookland-Cayce, Batesburg-Leesville and Gaffney, winning two state championships with Batesburg-Leesville and three with Gaffney before taking the Newberry job in 2010. He took the Bulldogs to three state title appearances, including 2015 and 2016 when they lost to Dillon both times. He’s won 341 games.

“I’ve enjoyed it, 40 years with these young men,” Strickland said. “They’ve made my life just watching them grow and get better. Making good human beings is what coaching’s all about, so I’m just proud of that more than anything.”

Strickland was looking to end his career in the 2A state final and planned for it.

“All I know was that our kids are real resilient, and they weren’t gonna roll over and play dead,” he said. “This is a mighty fine football team that beat us tonight and the kids played mighty fine, too.”

Strickland and the Bulldogs saw that right from the get-go Friday, with Devin Johnson’s 100-yard kickoff return to start the game.

Newberry (7-6) responded with a quick scoring drive capped with Zsyheim Epps’ 19-yard TD run. The point-after attempt failed, leaving the War Eagles with a 7-6 lead within the first three minutes of the game.

Gray’s Tre Robinson made it 14-6 with a 10-yard touchdown run with 1:13 left in the first quarter, and the Bulldogs responded with KJ Robinson’s 45-yard rumble that cut the War Eagles’ lead to 14-13 at the 10:46 mark of the second.

By that point, Adams had just 55 yards on 13 carries.

Not long after that Newberry score, the Mr. Football finalist broke free for two long TD runs in the second quarter, the first a 45-yarder and the second a 42-yarder, and Gray Collegiate went into the locker room holding a 28-13 lead.

Gray Collegiate War Eagles KZ Adams (17) rushes for a touchdown against the Newberry Bulldogs in a playoff game Friday, Nov. 26, 2021 at Fairfield Central High School.
Gray Collegiate War Eagles KZ Adams (17) rushes for a touchdown against the Newberry Bulldogs in a playoff game Friday, Nov. 26, 2021 at Fairfield Central High School.

Newberry cut that lead to 28-21 early in the third quarter, when Epps connected with Shaquil Good for a 24-yard touchdown pass. Epps then hit Zack Chalmers in the end zone for the 2-point conversion.

Gray offset that score four minutes later with Riley Staton’s 18-yard TD pass to Austin Harris.

With the War Eagles up 35-21, Robinson closed out a short drive with a 1-yard TD run to cut the lead to 35-28 with 7:46 left, but the Bulldogs never got the ball back.

Instead, Adams powered Gray’s 7-plus minute possession with short, clock-draining runs, along with a 30-yard scamper. The Bulldogs eventually reached the Newberry 9-yard line before Staton took the knee to seal the win and bring the War Eagles to the final game of the season.

Adams, who has 3,030 rushing yards going into the final game of the year, powered that drive with 11 carries for 60 yards.

“He put the ball in his hands and he carried us right to the end where we just ran it out,” Holmes said. “We didn’t want to give them the ball one more time. They did a good job offensively.”

KJ Robinson, a bruising smash-mouth rusher, finished the night for Newberry with 180 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, a solid effort that required Adams to keep pounding the football through four quarters.

He did. Adams needed 230 yards to reach 3,000 for the season, a mark that coach Holmes talked to him about.

“Coach was like, ‘Do you have the will to get to 230, to get to 3k?’ and I was like, why are you asking me this question?” Adams said. “My offensive line did great, they made some massive holes for me, and letting me do what I wanted to do.”

What he and the War Eagles are going to do now is prepare for one more opponent.

“It’s another step,” Adams said. “The job is not finished. I’m just focused on trying to win a championship.”

—HOW THEY SCORED—

First Quarter

G - Devin Johnson 100 kickoff return (Ryan Kussro kick) 11:43

N - Zsyheim Epps 19 run (kick failed) 9:01

G - Tre Robinson 10 run (Kussro kick) 1:13

Second Quarter

N - KJ Robinson 44 run (Roland Garcia kick) 10:36

G - KZ Adams 45 run (Kussro kick) 8:39

G - Adams 42 run (Kussro kick) 1:23

Third Quarter

N - Shaquil Good 24 pass from Epps (Chalmers pass from Epps) 7:42

G - Austin Harris 18 pass from Riley Staton (Kussro kick) 3:42

Fourth Quarter

N - Robinson 1 run (Garcia kick) 7:46

—PLAYER STATS—

RUSHING: N - KJ Robinson 26-180, Zsyheim Epps 8-50, Jared Acosta 1-(-1), Zack Chalmers 2-7. GC - KZ Adams 34-260, Tre Robinson 3-6, Riley Staton 1-(-9), Devin Johnson 1-(-5).

PASSING: N - Zsyheim Epps 2-8-0. GC - Tre Robinson 1-1-0, Riley Staton 3-4-0

RECEIVING: N - Zack Chalmers 3-11, Shaquil Good 2-34, Malik Goree 1-12, GC - Devin Johnson 1-14, Savion Smith 1-16, Austin Harris 2-32.

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