If you’re a high school athlete, chasing rings is the ultimate prize. At nearly every state championship outing this past season, someone from the winning team uttered the words “size me” or “ring me” as the celebrations were happening. To say rings will be plentiful across the Midlands after the 2018-2019 school year would be an understatement. Eleven local teams claimed state titles, and hundreds of athletes earned the right to wear championship rings.
It started with the Lexington girls’ golf team, which continues to build a dynasty that just doesn’t seem to end. The Wildcats claimed their third straight state championship and 13th in the past 15 years, with a score of 613 to easily outdistance the rest of the Class 5A field. Three freshmen and two sophomores comprised the starting lineup.
“We are fortunate to have good players for a long stretch,” says Coach Brandon Smith.
The A.C. Flora girls’ tennis team was the first of several programs that won state championships for the first time. The Falcons have been runners-up three times since 2012, but they finally overcame the final obstacle with a 5-1 win over Hilton Head to win the Class 4A title in early November. Senior Breeland Gann clinched the match with a 6-3, 1-6, 11-9 victory at No. 5 singles. “I knew that my court was the one that sealed it, so it was thrilling to finally get over that hump,” says Breeland. “You always hear that it’s the best feeling, and finally being able to get there, it really is.”
Chapin cheerleading did not let a move up to Class 5A be a deterrent. It was the Eagles’ 14th title overall, a state record. In addition to Chapin, River Bluff, Lexington, and Dutch Fork finished as the top Class 5A cheerleading squads in the state.
Another constant over the past three years is Dutch Fork football. The Silver Foxes claimed their third straight state championship with a 59-20 victory over T.L. Hanna. The Silver Foxes weren’t challenged all season, winning nearly every game by 30 or more points. They finished 13-0 with a 25-game winning streak dating back to last season. They ranked No. 9 in USA Today’s “Super 25” poll.
Some of the same people who played major roles the previous season were back this season. Quarterback Ty Olenchuk, running back Ron Hoff, and receiver Jalin Hyatt were key players again this year and will return next season as seniors. “This is the best team I have ever coached,” says Coach Tom Knotts of Dutch Fork. “We have been hard on them and strive for excellence. I am proud of the way we hung in there the whole year and stood there together.”
River Bluff wrestling got the winter sports season going with a runner-up finish in Class 5A.
The sport that saw the most success in the Midlands, however, was boys’ basketball. Three teams earned state champions and added a magical season for a long-time coach who stepped away after 30-plus years on the job. The end came for the long and illustrious career of Lexington Basketball Coach Bailey Harris when the Lexington boys’ team lost in the Class 5A semifinals. Bailey has been the Wildcats coach since 1987 and won 637 games in his career. This achievement ranks tied for sixth best in South Carolina history. Lexington started this season 29-0 before losing to Berkeley in the Class 5A lower state championship. When Bailey emerged from the locker room after talking with his players for the final time, he shared a long, tear-filled embrace with his wife, Beth.
“It’s always tough at the end of a season,” says Bailey. “I don’t think I’ve ever ended a season without crying my eyes out. You hate it for the seniors, and this time I’m a senior too. I told them I don’t know if I could have gone out and picked 14 guys from all over the state with whom I would have rather gone to war than the bunch I had.”
The Ridge View boys again won in Class 4A basketball, with Gray Collegiate winning back-to-back Class 2A titles. Keenan added to its long list of state titles with another in 2019. Keenan has eight state championships with four of those (2010, 2011, 2015, and 2019) in this decade. They are tied with Calhoun County for third most titles in state history.
Ridge View defeated Wilson 65-52 for the boys’ Class 4A basketball title on the first weekend in March. The cast of basketball players was very similar to the year before: Walyn Napper, Malcolm Wilson, and Crosby Harris-James, among many. But with the added talent of Cincere Scott and Ja’von Benson, they never missed a beat on their path to win the second state title in program history.
“We’ve come so far from my 10th grade year when we lost to Wren in the third round,” says Walyn, point guard. “We came back last year with a whole new set of players to win a state championship, but to go out as a senior with another title was a special moment. We were throwing alley-oops and knocking three’s like we have all year. It was a fun way to go out.”
Gray Collegiate was the opposite of Ridge View. The War Eagles thought they would have most of their team intact from the 2018 title team, but late in the summer, “Top 100 player” forward Juwan Gary transferred to a school in North Carolina.
It rattled Gray Collegiate for a bit as they struggled through a brutal early season schedule. But once the calendar changed to January, the War Eagles were at their best. And the state championship game might have been their best effort of the season — a 79-38 dismantling of Andrew Jackson.
Returning boys showed plenty of basketball talent. Guard Tommy Bruner and Khalil Robinson teamed brilliantly with frontcourt players Dallaz Corbitt, Jalil Robinson, and Ty Rivers. “There was a lot of doubt, but we never doubted ourselves,” says Gray Collegiate Coach Dion Bethea. “I told them only one team could beat us and that was ourselves. We came together even more, and I was proud of the progression and effort we gave all season long.”
Keenan dominated in the Class 3A boys’ basketball state championship as well. The Raiders put a sluggish first half behind them and outscored Ridgeland-Hardeeville 51-20 in the second half en route to a 70-40 victory. Senior Asanti Price and juniors Dillon Jones and Raekwon Horton formed a solid nucleus.
Spring Valley and Keenan girls’ basketball teams also made the state finals but came up short with two near misses of securing a championship. Spring Valley held a lead late but saw it slip away in the final two minutes. Goose Creek erased a 12-point second half deficit and rallied for a 52-51 win. Keenan lost 54-46 to Bishop England in the Class 3A championship.
The crowning of spring sport champions started with a first-time winner. The Chapin girls’ lacrosse team defeated Fort Mill 9-6 to win the Class 5A championship. The Eagles had lost in the Class 4A finals the previous two years, but once they made the move to Class 5A, they were able to overcome the final hurdle. “It feels amazing and it has been amazing to watch the progression,” says Coach Jen Green. “Six years ago, we couldn’t catch, throw, or field groundballs. It’s been amazing to watch the progression. I’m super proud of these girls.”
The second full weekend in May saw the South Carolina High School League crown champions in boys’ tennis, boys’ and girls’ soccer, and boys’ and girls’ track and field.
Dreher boys’ soccer was the only one to bring home a team title, but several others had outstanding seasons. The Blue Devils won the program’s first-ever state championship by outscoring Eastside 4-3 in penalty kicks for the Class 4A title. The match on May 10 was tied at one after 110 minutes of soccer, and Dreher Coach Jamie McClendon made a strategic move that paid off.
He changed goalkeepers for the penalty kick portion of the match, inserting sophomore John Duncan. It paid dividends when John stopped the second shot and watched as the fourth went wide of the goal.
“Roland Herbkersman is a great goalkeeper and leader, but John is a great shot stopper,” says Jamie. “We knew if it went to PKs, we were going to bring the shot stopper, and that is just what he did.”
While the Blue Devils were the only Midlands area soccer team in the finals, River Bluff girls finished one game shy of playing for its first-ever state championship. The Gators were nationally ranked most of the season and finished 22-1-1.
“Every year, we tried to improve, and we have improved,” says River Bluff coach KC Dunbaker. “In our first year, these seniors were freshmen and didn’t make the playoffs. There is a lot for these girls to be proud of and hopefully they won’t define their season by just one loss.”
While individual performances were outstanding all year, Airport freshman Jayla Jamison might have turned in the most impressive one. At the state track meet, she finished first in the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter dashes as well as the long jump. She accomplished the same feat the year before as an eighth grader.
“I’m just thankful I get to compete against all the other great competitors,” says Jayla. “I’m just blessed that God has me out there, allowing me to perform and do well and win championships. I’m thankful for everything.”
A.C. Flora boys’ tennis finished runner-up to Myrtle Beach in the Class 4A finals.
The sports year was capped on a glorious Friday night in mid-May. Lexington softball was in search of its first state championship since winning three in four years (1998, 2000, and 2001). The Wildcats trailed early, but thanks to home runs from Hannah Kumiyama, Jessica Senn, and Saige Stanley, they rallied for a 6-5 victory over Byrnes to win the Class 5A championship series two games to one.
Pitcher Allie Light held the Rebels to no runs over the final five innings to allow Lexington to celebrate a title for the first time in these players’ lifetime. “It was a new experience for them because this was my first year at Lexington,” says Coach Laurie Epps. “They bought into the process and what we were trying to get them to do. We told them we came to win a state championship, and that’s what we did this year.”
Hannah, a future University of South Carolina player, set the tone during the season with 17 home runs. Allie turned into a dominate force on the mound and will return for her senior season next year. “A lot of times, we were overlooked,” says Hannah. “We’ve been calling ourselves the underdogs all season. We weren’t supposed to make it out of lower state, so to be here and win for our school means so much.”
About the same time the Wildcats were securing a state championship in Rock Hill, Dutch Fork and Blythewood were playing on May 17 at Segra Park, home of the Columbia Fireflies, to decide the Class 5A baseball championship. Neither team had ever won a state title in baseball. The Silver Foxes received outstanding pitching from Doug Webb and Sam Hatcher to defeat the Bengals 2-1 in front of a large, enthusiastic crowd from both sides. Dutch Fork won the best-of-three championship series, two games to one.
Dutch Fork’s Ty Olenchuk added to his championship pedigree. The starting quarterback for the last two state championships in football was the winning pitcher in game two as he added a baseball ring to his accomplishments.
Blythewood had no reason to be disappointed. It is the program’s second runner-up finish since 2013, when they lost to Lexington in the state finals. “We fought to the last out and couldn’t be prouder of them,” says Blythewood Coach Banks Faulkner. “We have this program back where we think it should be.”
All the equipment has been put away for the 2018-2019 season, but teams are already preparing and looking forward to seeing who will be chasing rings for the 2019-2020 seasons.