‘Ironman’ Austin Shuler lifts South-Doyle past Gibbs

A slew of injuries placed South-Doyle High School with quite the uphill climb.

The Cherokees entered their Region 2-5A opener against Gibbs on Friday with an 0-2 record and nine starters sidelined. To avoid falling into an even deeper hole, they needed somebody to step up.

Austin Shuler answered the call, providing two of the biggest plays in South-Doyle’s 20-12 victory over the Eagles.

“Since he’s come on campus, he has been one of those guys plays on every phase of the game — offense, defense and special teams,” South-Doyle head coach Clark Duncan told 865 Preps. “He is just an ironman. He’s our quarterback on defense and he’s had to make plays for us. He made huge plays tonight to give us a chance.

“The guy is incredible. We have starters at nine positions out, but that isn’t an excuse. The older guys have got to step up and bring the young guys along and that’s what he has done.”

The senior snuffed out numerous plays throughout the game against Gibbs’ flexbone attack, but none was bigger than the stop he made in the fourth quarter.

After surrendering the lead, the Eagles (0-2, 0-1 Region 2-5A) found themselves facing a fourth-and-3 on South-Doyle’s nine-yard line. A field goal would have put them back on top, but in lieu of a couple missed extra points earlier in the game, they elected to run a sweep to Gavin Collins.

Shuler ranged left, sliced through a pair of blockers and dragged the junior running back down to force a turnover on downs.

Moments later, he sprinted down the South-Doyle sideline and made a remarkable one-handed catch for a 47-yard touchdown that helped seal the Cherokees’ first victory of the season.

“I want to see it on film, but I think that’s the best catch I’ve ever seen,” Duncan said. “It was unbelievable, and for us it was such a big play.”

Shuler’s heroics, however, may not have been possible without a break of luck late in the third quarter when Gibbs botched an option deep in its own territory to set up a go-ahead touchdown by senior running back Ralph Lee.

“We didn’t win the turnover margin like our goal is, we didn’t win special teams and we didn’t do a very good job of protecting the football when it mattered most,” Gibbs head coach Brad Conley said. “… We had the game going in our direction, but you turn the ball over down there and you tell your defense that they have to make a stop, and that’s hard to do.”

The Eagles now find themselves in a similar position to the one they were in a year ago, but a 0-2 start did not prevent them from winning the region in 2016 and Conley is hoping that the same can be said this season.

“I’m not going to make any bold predictions, but we’ve been here,” Conley said. “What we do this year will be completely different than what we did last year, but this isn’t foreign territory to us and hopefully this hurt we feel right now will translate us for our next opponent when David Crockett comes to Gibbs next week.”

Meanwhile, the Cherokees (1-2, 1-0) snagged a crucial victory despite missing a bevy of playmakers, most notably sophomore running back Elijah Young and senior wide receiver Tonquez Ball.

The reinforcements may take some time to slowly trickle in, but Friday was big step in keeping the hope of a second consecutive deep playoff run alive.

“The season is important, but what is ultimately more important is where you end up when the season is over,” Duncan said. “We all have goals, but we have to figure out a way to get to the next level to have a chance to make a run. When we get everybody back, we’ll have a chance to do that, but you have to stay alive until that and that is why this game was so huge.”

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