Led by their unsung quarterback, Falcons are flying the coop

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Led by their unsung quarterback, Falcons are flying the coop

GIBSON CITY — Nathan Garard doesn't seem worried about being overlooked.

That's easy to do when your football team is making a run at its first state championship game. Garard will line up under center Saturday for Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley's Class 2A state semifinal home game at 2 p.m. against Sterling Newman — a battle of two 12-0 teams.

Garard is the Falcons' first-year, junior quarterback. So what could possibly take some of the spotlight away from him in such a successful season?

Well, Garard is flanked by senior running back Mitch McNutt and junior fullback Jared Trantina, who have combined for 236 carries, 2,251 rushing yards and 44 touchdowns. By comparison, Garard has attempted just 69 passes this season.

"We do the same amount in practice as we do in games, so we're pretty well scripted with that," Garard said of GCMS' playcalling this season. "We do our work all the time outside of practice (too), so when we do get that opportunity, we just make the most of it."

The numbers prove that. The 5-foot-11, 185-pounder, who doubles as a defensive back, has completed 67 percent of his passes for 903 yards and 14 touchdowns versus just three interceptions. He's gotten in on the Falcons' devastating ground game as well, rushing 29 times for 245 yards and five touchdowns.

"We knew coming in he was going to be a good athlete; he's a very intelligent young man anyway," GCMS coach Mike Allen said. "He's a thinker, he processes things. He works his butt off. He's deserving of these accolades and excitement we're having now. He's a big part of that."

McNutt and Trantina were more known commodities for the Falcons' offense heading into 2017. The former compiled 1,235 yards with his feet, and the latter added 615 last season as GCMS fell to Annawan/Wethersfield in the second round of the 2A playoffs.

Garard, meanwhile, was behind now-graduated quarterback Keegan Allen and focused more on defense, contributing 68 tackles for the 2016 GCMS squad. Garard's position on past teams has helped him today, though.

"I've been with the program since freshman year, so I've slowly been worked in with the last quarterback," Garard said. "He (Keegan Allen) was always a good mentor to me, so he helped me feel more comfortable as I progressed with this team. And I was ready to step in and fill his shoes."

Garard is following in Keegan Allen's quarterback mold — to an extent. Allen attempted 67 passes in his final prep season, close to Garard's number this year. But Garard's compiled yardage nearly doubles Allen's output last season of 472.

"Coach always talks (about how) we don't get that many offensive plays," Garard said. "So when we do get the pass plays, we've just got to make them count."

Juniors Ryland Holt and Bryce Barnes have been a boost to that goal. Neither played as a sophomore, and Mike Allen was unsure he'd have either athlete at his disposal this season before both decided in early July to play.

"We welcomed them back with open arms," Allen said with a laugh.

It's easy to see why, as the duo has accounted for a large portion of Garard's targets. The 6-4 Holt has secured 14 passes for 371 yards and nine touchdowns, while the 6-2 Barnes has soaked up 13 catches for 286 yards and three scores.

"There are multiple times a week when we'll all get together and throw routes," Garard said. "Just not so much to get the timing down, but just getting acclimated with each others' speed and where to get (the ball) to. We work really well together."

Holt and Barnes said they've noticed their classmate's growth — both during games and on the sideline.

"I think he's really stepped up, not just learning what we're trying to say to him, but understanding when it comes to playcalling," Holt said. "We can just pick up right where we left off."

"His leadership has been great," Barnes added.

While Allen contends all three athletes possess plenty of skill, he said another factor has keyed the trio's pass-catch success: A good bit of healthy competition.

"They love in practice to catch one-handed. (Find out) who has the best catch, and between plays they'll throw a ball back and forth," Allen said. "They're very competitive, but they have a lot of fun at the same time."

Holt and Barnes agreed, saying that outdoing one another has become a daily venture whether the Falcons are practicing or taking another step toward the program's first state finals berth.

"I just think with how competitive we are, we always try to one-up each other," Holt said.

"Oh, yeah," Barnes added. "When one of us scores, the other person has to get another pass or it's not good."

But Garard's stability at quarterback can't solely be credited to studying behind a senior last season or to the addition of two solid receiving options.

No, Garard is a strong all-around football player in his own right, Allen said.

"He reads very well, and he runs the ball," he added. "He not only has a good arm, he can run the ball very well. He's a kid that has gained more confidence and more confidence as the season has gone on."

Self-trust will be critical for Garard and his receiving corps against a Sterling Newman squad that has five state titles to its name, the most recent coming in 2013. Allen said that while his group's run game has made ample gains, a one-faceted offensive presence will not get the job done against the Comets.

GCMS' passing assault has made its presence felt already this postseason. Barnes highlighted the Falcons' 50-14 first-round win over Eastland-Pearl City, against whom Garard connected with Barnes, Ryland and McNutt for scores en route to 188 throwing yards.

And so, Garard will lead his teammates onto Falcon Field this weekend with history on the line. Whether or not Sterling Newman's focus shifts to the GCMS pass attack, Garard will just keep playing his game with one thought in mind.

"We've been counting down the weeks for this, and (making the state finals has) been our main goal," he said. "It's really pushing us."

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