Local high school coaches inspire success
The highs and lows of the 2016–2017 athletic sports calendar reached both impressive heights as well as the most devastating of tragedies. Several programs across the Midlands won state championships or reached levels that had not been seen in decades — or ever. But the most indelible mark left on this past athletic year is the terrible losses suffered by several schools.
Athletes Lewis Simpkins from River Bluff, Brett Williams from White Knoll, and Ellis Hawkins from Westwood each lost their lives. Lewis died from complications of a fatal arrhythmia secondary to a pre-existing heart condition. Brett, a standout baseball player who had already committed to the University of South Carolina, suffered an illness in January and three days later died from complications. Ellis, a football linebacker, died from injuries suffered in a car accident this past spring.
“There’s nothing that can prepare you for a loss like this,” says White Knoll baseball coach Charles Assey. “The outpouring of support by the athletic programs not just from around the Midlands but across the state has been phenomenal. It says a lot about the people who coach and support athletics in this state.”
Even as the entire Midlands mourned these losses, athletics continued and success was found while the fallen continued to be honored all season.
It was an entirely different sports landscape when the South Carolina High School League implemented a new five-class system for the first time. For decades, the SCHSL operated in a four-class system but created Class 5A to lower the number of member schools in each class and bring the enrollment numbers closer together. That change created a super region in the Midlands in Class 5A. Blythewood, Dutch Fork, Irmo, Lexington, River Bluff, Spring Valley, and White Knoll formed a highly competitive region where each of those schools found success to some degree.
“Our region is as competitive as any in this state,” says Dutch Fork athletics director and football coach Tom Knotts. “It’s not just one sport either. I think all of the coaches in every sport realized we’re going to have to be on the top of our game just to compete in the region.”
Dutch Fork was one of the big winners. The Silver Foxes won the first-ever Class 5A football championship in accomplishing another first — they went undefeated. Cheerleading also claimed a state championship. Girls’ tennis finished as the state runner-up, and girls’ cross country finished third. Tom has been able to revel in the success.
“We’ve had deep runs in what you call the high-profile sports, but we’ve also been very good in sports that sometimes don’t get the coverage they deserve,” Tom says. “That means we have good players and good coaches in place. They’re willing to put in the work that’s necessary to be successful. That’s the rewarding part of this job.”
Tom won several state titles with Independence High School in North Carolina, and this was his second with the Silver Foxes. He said this team made him as proud as any he has ever coached.
“We didn’t look very good in the spring or even the summer,” Tom says. “The thing that made this group special was that they got better and better every week. Our quarterback improved every game, and we peaked late in the season defensively. That’s how you want to draw things up; always get better as the season progresses.”
Brookland-Cayce football came one win away from playing for a Class 3A state championship. That type of success is what Rusty Charpia envisioned when he took over five years ago. The fact that it was the best season since 1966 was not lost on him either.
“It was a lot of fun,” says Rusty. “My goal coming here was to make Brookland-Cayce what Byrnes was in the early 2000s under Bobby Bentley. I want us to be ready to at least compete for a state championship every single year. You never know what to expect, but this season people were excited about Bearcat football. That’s a step in the right direction.”
Rusty openly admits he did not see this success coming. He wondered early on how good the team could be, but a comeback win over Airport made Rusty realize the Bearcats had a chance to excel, and a loss to Chapin gave him an insight into the depths of their potential if they could improve a few minor issues.
“In the second game of the season, we came back from 16 down with about nine minutes to play to defeat Airport,” says Rusty. “That gave us some confidence, but the loss to Chapin was the eye-opener. We realized if we cleaned some things up, we had a chance to be pretty good.”
Chapin football also reached heights not experienced since 1985. The Eagles lost in the Lower State championship game. The two-head quarterback system of Copper Bemis and Trad Beatty proved to be very effective. The Eagles’ set of skilled players included Xzavion Gordon, Cole Owens, Will Register, and Kale Rhame.
“We got better in some aspects of the game from week four to week 14,” says Chapin coach Justin Gentry. “We were questioning ourselves before that, but we had a little pow wow and discussed things. We knew we had a chance to be good, and that talk cleared the air and allowed us to play better every week.”
In cheerleading, Dutch Fork brought home the state championship with an outstanding performance in the finals. The Silver Foxes last won a title in 2014, but for coach Katie Nunnery this was just as special as the past win.
Lexington and River Bluff cheerleading teams finished second and third to give the Midlands the top three spots in the state.
Blythewood volleyball was able to make it to the state’s final four, ending a run that was one of the best in the school’s history. In boys’ cross country, senior Weston Hutto helped Lexington reach an impressive third-place team finish.
The Lexington girls’ golf team continued its dominance, achieving a state record of 11 state titles overall. They won 10 out of the 11-year span of 2004 through 2014 and, after finishing as runner-up in 2015, once again claimed the state championship this year in Class 5A.
But Lexington was not the only bright spot on the links. White Knoll finished second and Blythewood finished third, proving girls’ golf is better in the Midlands than in any other part of the state. White Knoll’s Jensen Castle also claimed medalist honors, shooting 152 over the 36-hole tournament. Lexington’s Gracyn Burgess finished second, Isabella Rawl finished third, and Blythewood’s Parker Stalvey finished fifth.
Basketball in the Midlands brought the rebirth of a legendary program, the continued excellence of another, and one reaching a state championship for the first time in school history. It also saw two standouts from the area earn the highest of individual honors.
Lower Richland boys’ basketball coach Caleb Gaither took the Diamonds to a state championship in his first year on the job. Seniors Clyde Trapp and Ja’Cor Nelson laid the foundation for the Diamonds to return to the top for the first time since 1999 and earn the fifth title in program history. The tradition of success by the Lower Richland program is what attracted Caleb to the job.
“I took the job because of the history and legacy at Lower Richland,” says Caleb. “There is a commitment to excellence here. When we were in the locker room after winning the championship this year, I told the younger guys that reaching that point is the goal every year. We went right back to work looking towards next year soon after that.”
Keenan coach Zach Norris again brought the Raiders to the brink of a state championship as his team came just short of finishing as state runner-up. Keenan has won five state titles since 2000.
“I always want to play better in February and March than in December,” says Zach. “Sometimes you have young kids, and they don’t always understand what it takes to play at this level. You let them have their growing pains early, and by the time region begins, you better be ready to go. That has worked out for us over the years.”
Blythewood reached the Class 5A title game under the guidance of Zeke Washington. The Bengals fell short against Dorman, but that does not take away from their accomplishments this season.
“I think the most satisfying thing for me was seeing the hard work the kids put in finally pay off,” says Zeke. “When our seniors were freshmen, I told them that if you play for your community and keep winning, people would come see you play. When our team entered the Colonial Life Arena, we could feel and see the support from the entire community. Right before the game, all of our players looked to their left and saw the most amazing student section. I was so happy that our players had a chance to experience the overwhelming pride of the Blythewood community.”
Gray Collegiate Academy’s Jalek Felton, who will be playing for defending NCAA Men’s Basketball National Champions North Carolina next season, won the Gatorade Player of the Year honors after averaging 24.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 2.8 steals, leading the War Eagles to the Upper State finals where they lost to Keenan. Dreher’s Jalynn Murray, who will also play at North Carolina next year, earned the girls’ Gatorade Player award.
“It just goes to show you what type of talent is in the city,” says Jalek. “Basketball here is as good and competitive as anywhere in the state. It was an honor to win Player of the Year among so many great players.”
Ken Wilson did a fantastic job of taking Chapin’s wrestling program to the state finals for the first time since 1997. Hank Manos, Cole Haile, and Taylor Cabe were a group of leaders on the team.
“I told the guys at the beginning of the year they could wrestle for the state championship,” says Ken. “We had to overcome some adversity, but we accomplished some of the goals we set for ourselves. I couldn’t be prouder of a group of guys. I can promise you nobody worked harder than they did from the beginning of the season to the end.”
Chapin swept the boys’ and girls’ soccer titles a season ago and once again found themselves in the finals in 2017. The boys took home the state championship trophy once again in a 2-0 victory over Eastside to claim back-to-back titles in coach Ben Bosco’s final seasons. Ben is leaving coaching to go into private business in Chattanooga.
“This team battled all year and struggled with mental toughness and discipline,” Ben says. “If there was one night to make mental toughness an idea, that was the night to do it. We retained a lot of the players from this past year, and that always helps when you have kids that know what to expect. They’re familiar in what is required and know what we as coaches expect out of them.”
Bob Taylor won a state championship as Chapin’s wrestling coach in the 1990s, then added to that trophy case by leading the girls’ soccer program to the first title in program history in 2016. Rachel Crosby, Salley Slice, Shelby Waites, and Jordan Dawsey were a part of a large group of leaders. The Eagles just fell short of repeating as state champions with a 2-1 loss in penalty kicks to South Aiken.
“The girls have had a lot of pressure on them all year, and they’ve responded,” says Bob. “The past few years have really been a great ride. I am so proud of my girls.”
Phil Savitz is no stranger to state titles. The boys’ soccer coaching legend won 14 titles while coaching Irmo and added another to his belt this past year at River Bluff. He had the Gators back in the Lower State finals, but they came up short in a loss to Wando, the team ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today.
River Bluff’s success in such a short period of time has not totally surprised Phil, but he does realize how difficult it is to reach the highest point in the state.
“It’s always rewarding to see a team have the opportunity to compete for a title,” says Phil. “The fan base, school, and community all get super excited, and the memories are special ones that can last a lifetime. You’re never guaranteed to get to that point, so I tell each group to cherish and enjoy the opportunity when it happens!”
White Knoll softball hit home runs at a near-record pace to place them in the state championship series final for the first-time in school history.
A.C. Flora baseball won three straight state titles from 2012–14, and coach Andy Hallett had the Falcons ranked No. 1 in Class 4A most of the 2017 season. The Falcons completed their run to state championship No. 6 under Andy by sweeping South Pointe in the best-of-three championship series for their fourth state title in the past six years. A.C. Flora outscored the opposition 73-18 in going 8-0 in the playoffs.
“It’s been one of those years,” says Andy. “Stuff comes at you, you keep plugging forward and moving, moving, moving. To be where we are right now, I couldn’t be prouder. They’re all special, without hesitation, but I’m here to tell you this one is sweet.”
The same day that the baseball team captured the state championship, the A.C. Flora golf team won their eighth straight state title with a 10-shot victory over Myrtle Beach. That gives A.C. Flora 14 golf state titles overall. The Falcons concluded their strong spring season by finishing as state runner-up in boys’ tennis and lacrosse.
Reflection brings perspective. Coaches and athletes alike will look back at the lessons learned on and off the field during the past year and use them as tools for guidance moving forward, especially the students as they transition from adolescence into adulthood.