Reaching the pinnacle of a sport is always special, no matter the circumstances. Some claim becoming a champion for the first time ever is the hardest thing to achieve, while others believe repeating or winning multiple championships is the most difficult task to accomplish.
Fortunately for the Midlands’ area high schools this season, they’ve experienced a little bit of both. River Bluff girls’ tennis, Gray Collegiate and Ridge View boys’ basketball, and White Knoll softball each claimed elusive state championships for the first time in their programs’ respective histories.
On the flip side, Chapin and Dutch Fork Competitive Cheer, Dutch Fork football, Lexington girls’ golf, Chapin boys’ soccer, Chapin baseball, and Spring Valley and Keenan girls’ basketball all claimed state championships that they’ve won multiple times in the past.
Dutch Fork Coach Tom Knotts has seen it from both sides. He won seven state championships in North Carolina and has added three since moving to Dutch Fork, including the last two Class 5A titles. “The climb to the top of the hill is hard, but staying there is harder,” says Tom. “That’s going to be our motto, and we’re going to stick with it.”
Brian Lim is the girls’ tennis coach for River Bluff. He was only 24 years old in his third season when the Gators knocked off Spartanburg to win the first state championship in program history. “It was very humbling as a coach,” says Brian. “I know many great coaches who have been coaching for years and haven’t gotten over the hurdle of winning a state title. I’m lucky to have coached a great team early on in my career. I credit my team’s determination and hard work over the past few years, which led us to a championship.”
The drama that unfolded that warm November afternoon won’t be forgotten anytime soon by Brian or anyone else with the program. The Gators had wins by Liyin Zhu at No. 3 singles, Kiana Thatcher at No. 5, and the No. 2 doubles team of Elizabeth Roquemore and Shelby Byers to hold a 3-2 advantage over the Vikings.
Senior Maegan Togneri was still on the court playing No. 4 singles. If she lost and Spartanburg tied the match, the Vikings had two of the top-ranked players in the state waiting in the wings to play No. 1 doubles. Maegan lost the first set before rallying to win the second set to force a match tiebreaker with the first to 10 points earning the point for their team. With all the eyes on her court, Maegan lost the first three points before winning 10 of the next 11 points to clinch the championship. “It was amazing,” Maegan says. “The best feeling in the world. It gives me chills thinking about it.”
Fellow senior Elizabeth Roquemore remembers the day vividly. “It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago,” says Elizabeth. “It was amazing to know how much hard work we put in and to see it end with a championship. It is just an unbelievable feeling.”
Competitive Cheer state championships again went to two of the finest programs in the state with Dutch Fork and Chapin claiming the top spot in their respective classifications.
The Eagles squad has made winning the routine. Chapin has won four consecutive state titles with the last two coming in Class 4A, following the first two when they were in Class 3A. They have won a state-record 13 state championships overall since the South Carolina High School League introduced Competitive Cheer to the list of sanctioned sports in 1996.
The Silver Foxes are also no strangers to winning. They repeated as the Class 5A champions and have been a perennial contender. Dutch Fork has won eight championships since that time with three of those coming since 2014.
Lexington and River Bluff also enjoyed great success in Competitive Cheer by finishing second and third in Class 5A.
Dutch Fork football once again displayed its dominance on the gridiron by claiming a second straight Class 5A state title in a thrilling, down to the wire finish against Dorman. The Silver Foxes lost early in the season to Fort Dorchester but never wavered in their quest to repeat as champions. The outcome of the championship game was not determined until the final seconds. The Cavaliers scored with 19 seconds remaining to trail 28-27 and decided to go for the victory with a two-point conversion. Senior linebacker Hugh Ryan made the tackle just short of the goal line to preserve the victory.
Senior Bryce Thompson was the catalyst offensively and garnered heavy recruiting interest from several of the top programs in the country. By June, he had committed to the University of Tennessee.
Dutch Fork has plenty to look forward to. Sophomore Ron Hoff was the featured running back after returning from injury late in the season. Sophomore quarterback Ty Olenchuk also took the reins as the full-time starter in the middle of the season. Also, freshman Jalin Hyatt turned into the go-to receiver.
The Brookland-Cayce football team returned to the state semifinals for the second season in a row. It is the most successful two-year stint in the Bearcats history, and Coach Rusty Charpia hopes to make late November runs into the playoffs a regular occurrence.
Lexington girls’ golf claimed its 12th state championship since 2004 by easily outdistancing Boiling Springs in the Championship 606-655 in the Class 5A state tournament.
Graycn Burgess and Isabella Rawl were the highest individual placers by finishing third and fourth overall, respectively. But it was a total team effort that allowed the Wildcats to win its second straight title and 12th overall. Graycn, who will play for Clemson, was the only senior.
“The biggest thing is that we were consistent from day one,” says Coach Brandon Smith. “We have a good foundation coming back. We started three eighth graders and a ninth grader. I’m excited about the future.”
When the sports calendar flipped to winter, basketball and wrestling took center stage. Ridge View and Gray Collegiate made impressive runs through the state tournament to claim their first titles in school history. Ridge View had reached the finals once before and was not going to be denied this time around. Coach Yerrick Stoneman watched his team run through the playoffs before knocking off Wilson 74-70 in the Class 4A state championship.
Juniors Malcolm Wilson, Walyn Napper, and Crosby Jones led the way, and having that talent and experience return next season will ensure that the Blazers are a contender once again.
“We just wanted to come in and prove all the doubters wrong,” says Walyn. “We were doubted all summer and throughout the year, but we won a state championship. It’s not just for us; it’s for the community. They put in a lot of hard work for us.”
Coach Dion Bethea has had the vision for Gray Collegiate for several years. He wanted his upstart program to become not only one of the marquee teams in South Carolina but also known nationally as well. The War Eagles have been able to do that by playing in several high-profile tournaments and showcases out of the state. However, until the team defeated Carvers Bay 58-45 in the Class 2A state championship game, that elusive first state title championship was never within his grasp. “I dreamed about this last year,” says Dion. “This year, we had to get over the hump that was Keenan, and once we did, it was up to us to take the title.”
The victory in early March, however, was bittersweet and capped an emotional week, as junior varsity player Tiquan Taylor was killed less than a week before the state title game. Junior Juwan Gary, named the Class 2A Player of the Year, is ranked in the Top 30 players nationally by most publications, but he also had much help from senior Mike Marsh, along with fellow classmates Tommy Bruner and Khalil Robinson.
Things were just as prosperous on the girls’ basketball court, with a couple of programs regaining top places that were familiar with winning state championships. Coach Megan Assey led the Spring Valley Vikings to a state championship in her second season on the job for their third title in four seasons and fifth since 2009. Players Ashley Williamson, Taylor Lewis, and Lauryn Taylor all took leading roles throughout the season.
“Obviously, there’s a championship tradition of excellence established here,” Megan says. “I knew that, and it was a big draw for me to take the job. But at the same time, winning and winning consistently is hard. It’s about what you build together. It’s culture and leadership, and it’s a buy-in.”
Keenan did things a little bit differently. The Raiders started the season 1-6 but ended it hoisting a trophy on the Colonial Life Arena floor. They won 17 of their final 18 games and cemented their third state championship since 2008 in the dominating win over Mullins.
“It was tough, but the girls pulled together,” says coach Reggie Mclain. “The seniors got together and lifted the team up and told them what we needed to do.” JaDimond Hickman and Logan Taylor-McDaniel were two of those seniors that Reggie relied on.
The winter season also featured Chapin and Swansea finishing as runners-up in their respective divisions on the wrestling mat.
Spring resulted in abundant success across the Midlands. Chapin boys’ soccer overcame losing their coach in the middle of the season by claiming their third straight championship. The Eagles are the first school to win at least three consecutive boys soccer state championships since St. Joseph’s won five in a row between 2012 and 2016. It was the fifth title for the program and 50th overall state championship for the school.
Lexington girls’ soccer came up one game short on reclaiming a state championship they last won in 2016. But the loss in the finals did not take away from the success of this senior class that included Megan Classer, Mary Katherine Waters, and Brooke Power, who won 96 games, went 44-0 in region play, and made four lower state championship games and two championship game appearances with one title.
“This group went through winning everything we went after and competed all the way,” says Coach Chris Fryland. “We’ve got some talent coming back, but it will be hard to replace these girls for sure.”
Chapin quickly added to its championship haul by winning the Class 4A baseball championship, sweeping the best-of-three series against Airport. The Eagles moved to No. 1 early in the season and stayed there to the end, winning their 11th program state championship overall and first since 2002. Sophomore pitchers Cade Austin and William Privette limited Airport to one run in the two games, while the Chapin offense was led by Nick Price and Tanner Steffy.
“This is special. I wanted it for the kids,” says Chapin Coach Scott McLeod. “I’ve had my state championship, and I’ve been around a long time, but I wanted those guys to experience it. Our seniors have been with us five or six years and put up with a lot from me, so I wanted it for them.”
River Bluff’s quest for its first state title once again fell a game short. The Gators replaced 10 players that achieved runner-up in the state championship in 2017 and again lost in the finals this year against Dorman.
White Knoll capped off the season by winning its first-ever softball state championship in sweeping Byrnes. The Timberwolves used the dominant pitching of Andrea Lyon and time hitting from Andrea, Hannah Goodwin, Ginna Leaphart, and Madison Miller to roll to a 31-2 record and avenge this past year’s loss to the Rebels in the finals. “We have been reminded of last year ever since we started the first day of fall practice,” says Ginna. “All our hard work really paid off.”
It was another spectacular athletic year across the Midlands. Congratulations to the four teams whose hard work and ultimate success awarded them a place in the Midlands’ state championship club for the first time, as well as to all those who have repeatedly proven great talent. The question of who can sustain that success and be a repeat winner next year remains.