Finally! Pearl Cohn Ends 26-Year Title Drought

Firebirds Edge Upperman In Crazy 4A Clash, 36-27

  • Saturday, December 2, 2023
  • James Beach

Upperman head coach Adam Caine called it hectic. Pearl Cohn boss Elie Brunetti described it as crazy.

In a game that featured two kickoff returns for scores, two scores called by penalties, halves and quarters that looked nothing like the one before it, it was ultimately two unplanned plays which made the difference as Pearl Cohn captured its first state championship in 26 seasons.

In the BlueCross Bowl's lone matchup of unbeaten teams, Pearl Cohn (15-0) emerged from the chaos with a 36-27 win over Upperman (14-1) at Finley Stadium Friday morning, and not even the steady rain throughout the game could a put a damper on the winning sideline after three runner-up trophies since that 1997 crowning.

"Our kids fought to the end, as did their kids. We didn't quit and they didn't quit, and that's what you saw out there. It's just a very emotional moment for our community because we live and breathe with this program," said Brunetti, who capped his 17th season at the helm with a title after runner-up finishes in 2015, 2019 and 2022.

"We walked off the field last season here and didn't want to make that drive home this time without the gold trophy. Just a really special moment for us seniors," said Zeion-Lafrederick Simpson, the 6-3, 241-pound wrecking ball of a senior who won the BlueCross Bowl MVP honors.

Simpson wound up with 181 rushing yards and two TDs on 15 totes, many of them draped with Upperman defenders on his back, and it was his 32-yard burst in the fourth period that looked as if it had sealed the game, putting the Firebirds up 29-14 with 10:43 left.

"People ask me what my impression is of their team, and honestly, it's the biggest team I've ever seen. We came out here and we expected to win the game, but give them credit. Like I said I've never seen a team that big in my life," said Caine in defeat.

The former McCallie lineman who has now won 66 games since taking over the Bees' program six years ago, watched his undersized boys battle it out yard for yard, especially in the first half when they didn't allow Pearl Cohn to cross the midfield stripe officially. The Bees used an opening drive to march 67 yards in 11 running plays despite being outweighed on average by 30 pounds in the trenches. The Bronzden Chaffin four-yard keeper gave Upperman a 7-0 lead which it carried into the dressing room.

Pearl Cohn had three drives in the half starting at its own 19, 6 and 1 and the only time it crossed midfield was on a 92-yard run by Javion Kinnard that was nullified by a holding penalty.

But when Upperman's running game ran into a wall in the third period, the Firebirds began to seize momentum. Pearl Cohn wound up scoring on its first four drives of the second half, including all three in the third quarter when it put up 259 yards of its 392 total and 11 of its 18 first downs. The defense, meanwhile, held Upperman to negative four yards in the period with no first downs.  

And still it almost wasn't enough.

After Pearl Cohn drove down the field to start the second half with a 72-yard drive that included another long TD run being called back to knot it at 7-7, Upperman responded with a 77-yard kick return on the ensuing kickoff  by Branson Turnbow to make it 14-7 Bees.

"Third quarter has been ours all year, and that's all we told them in the dressing room. We kept hurting ourselves, but we kept overcoming the mistakes. I thought we wore them down," added Brunetti.

Pearl Cohn tied it back up with another methodical 81-yard march with Simpson doing the most damage. He bullied his way for 56 of the yards on three carries, and Keshawn Tarleton kept it on a sneak from the one to make it 14-all. After an Upperman 3-and-out, the Firebirds marched it 75 yards thanks in part to the first of the two unplanned plays. Facing a fourth down near midfield, punter Ja'Quis Williams fumbled the punt snap , but had the presence about him to gather it and get to the edge for a 15-yard conversion run to keep the drive alive. Three plays later, D'Arious Reed won a jump ball in the end zone from Tarleton for a 17-yard score and the Firebirds first lead.

"Yeah, just a really athletic play. Players make plays, and Ja'Quis (Williams) turned a bad play into a good play. It may have been the difference in the game," said Brunetti of the fake punt.

With just eight yards of offense to its credit and the way Pearl Cohn was starting to wear on the Bees, Upperman tried a little trickery of its own on the first possession of the final quarter. Pearl Cohn's Da'Vontae Anderson sniffed out the fake punt, though, and set Pearl Cohn up at the 32. Simpson covered all that in one jaunt and when the conversion snap was bobbled, Tarleton picked it up off the turf and made the corner pylon with his legs for what would turn out to be a critical two-point run and a 29-14 advantage.

"I probably called the fake punt out of panic a little bit and we abandoned the run a little early, and that cost us. They were just really starting to wear on us with their big guys and we needed something," said Caine.

Chaffin got the Firebird finally loosened up some with three of his seven completions on the next drive, and Ethan Palk ran it hard against the big boys as Upperman covered 56 yards in a 2:55 drive with Palk bullying his way in from the 3 to slice it to 29-21 with 7:41 left.

Then things really got crazy. Upperman got a successful onside kick when Theo Brown came away from the scrum with it, and the Bees moved it 41 yards on nine straight carries, taking it down to 2:14 after Chaffin's 3-yard run. Needing the conversion to tie it, Chaffin kept it and landed just short of the goal line with his outstretched arms, and Pearl Cohn was up 29-27 with an onside kick on the horizon.

This time, the Firebirds were ready and when the ball bounced perfectly up in the air, Omarion Starnes didn't hesitate attacking it, gathering it in and going untouched for a 48 yard kick return to seal the deal. It was the only play of the game Starnes participated due to an injury earlier in the year, but he made it count.

"I'm happy for him. He was a starter for us until he got hurt in the second game of the year, and it was great to see him make an impact. Things got crazy at the end, but ultimately it was the stop of the two-point conversion that mattered, and like they have done all year when it mattered, the boys came through," added Brunetti.

Aside from Simpson's big day, Cromwell added 77 rushing yards as Pearl Cohn put up 311 on the ground and 81 in the air. Upperman got 74 from Palk on 20 carries.







-- 36






-- 27


UP Bronzden Chaffin 4 run (Beau Stanfill kick) (6:10, 1st) 0-7

PC Zeion Simpson 5 run (Kassie Rohan, Jr. kick) (9:04, 3rd) 7-7

UP Branson Turnbow 77 kickoff return (Stanfill kick) (8:51, 3rd) 7-14

PC Keshawn Tarleton 1 run (Rohan, Jr. kick) (5:03, 3rd) 14-14

PC D’Arious Reed 17 pass from Keshawn Tarleton (Rohan, Jr. kick) (:12, 3rd) 21-14

PC Simpson 32 run (Tarleton run) (10:43, 4 h) 29-14

UP Ethan Palk 2 run 9Stanfill kick) (7:41, 4th) 29-21

UP Bronzden Chaffin 3 run (run fail ) (2:0, 4th) 29—27

PC O Starnes 48 kickoff return (Rohan, Jr. kick) (2:14, 4th) 36-27




First Downs






Passing Yards



Total yards



Passing (Comp-Att-Int)












Time of Possession




Pearl Cohn Rushing: Zeion Simpson 15-181, 2 TDs; Malachi Cromwell 12-77; Javion Kinnard 7-45; Keshawn Tarleton 4-18;J Williams 1-15; TEAM 2-(-25).

Upperman Rushing: Ethan Palk 20-74, 1 TD; Bronzden Chaffin 18-48, 2 TDs; Jaxson Rollins 4-12: Carmine Phillips 3-11; Ja’lyric Cullom;2-5 Branson Turnbow 1-0;

Pearl Cohn Passing: Keshawn Tarleton 6-10-0 for 81 yards, 1 TD.

Upperman Passing: Bronzden Chaffin 7-11=0 for 76 yards.

Pearl Cohn Receiving: D’Arious Reed 3-61, 1 TD; Donovan Higgins 3-20.

Upperman Receiving; Branson Turnbow2-40; Ja’lyric Cullom 2-(-2); Carmine Phillips 1-25; Nathan Ledbetter1-7; Elijah Pitts 1-6.

Records: Pearl Cohn 15-0; Upperman 14-1

Most Valuable Player: Zeion Simpson, Pearl Cohn.

Notable: Pearl Cohn’s first title since 1997.

(Contact James Beach at

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