Local high school teams garner regional and national recognition

By Chris Dearing

Success in sports can be measured in a number of different ways. Obviously, the most common is for teams or individuals to reach the ultimate pinnacle of their sport and be crowned champions, but success can come in big and small achievements. Teams can suddenly find themselves reaching unexpected heights; individuals can standout in ways that even surprise themselves.

The 2015-2016 school year has seen that success expand across teams and individuals who participated in the South Carolina High School League ranks. Champions have been crowned, teams have come out of nowhere to compete for titles, and individuals have been spotlighted on national television for their achievements.

Spring Valley football players RJ Bacon, Ty’Juan Fulton and Ryan Lee found themselves in the national spotlight just as the school year kicked off for a play that was featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter. The trio executed an unlikely hook-and-ladder play that led to a Fulton touchdown in Spring Valley’s victory over Laurens. Ryan, the quarterback, started the play from the 44-yard line when he took the snap and rifled it to RJ. The throw was a little high, so RJ had to leap to make the catch. As he was doing this, a Laurens defender undercut him, causing him to start his fall to the turf. But just before he reached the ground, RJ flipped the ball to Ty’Juan, who was coming out of the backfield from his running back position. Ty’Juan caught the ball in stride and raced the final 35 yards untouched for the score. Thinking back on the play, each are still surprised they were able to make it work.

A.C. Flora freshman Christian Brown dunks on the Hammond Skyhawks in their state championship victory.

“It happened right before halftime, and once we got into the locker room, all the guys were hyped because we were able to pull it off,” says RJ. “I knew the ball was high, and my first thought was to catch and complete the pass. But once I started going down, I saw the top of Ty’Juan’s helmet, and I tossed it … and it worked.”

Ty’Juan had similar thoughts. “I was supposed to go on the outside but when I saw the throw was high, I cut back inside,” says Ty’Juan. “I knew RJ was going to get the ball close to where I needed to catch it. It was pretty cool to be a part of it.” That one play seemed to set the stage for success for Midlands schools this year that reached all the way into spring sports.

Lexington’s football team made a run that was unexpected by many across the state. The Wildcats opened the season unranked and lost their opening game to Westside before winning 13 games in a row, a new school record, with a Region V-4A Championship before reaching the Class 4A, Division II state championship against Northwestern.

The Lexington Wildcats take the field in preparation for their state championship title against the Northwestern Trojans.

Spring Valley senior RJ Bacon helps execute the perfect hook-and-ladder play, featured on national news, against the Laurens Raiders. 

“These kids were special from the very beginning,” says Lexington coach Josh Stepp. “They came to work every day with a great attitude and great effort. A lot of people were surprised by what we accomplished and think we might have overachieved, but not us. We believed in these kids, they believed in us and believed in each other. We have an expectation to be successful, and our kids were relentless from the beginning and bought into the program. I couldn’t have been more pleased with what they accomplished.”

Lexington had not reached a football state championship since 2000, so their rise overtook the town who filled the stadium each week. That was not lost on a large senior class that led the Wildcats to the finals. Senior running back Slade Carroll was one of the main offensive catalysts, while senior linebacker Trey Mitchell led the defense.

A.C. Flora girls’ tennis coach, Amy Martin, had thoughts during the preseason that the Falcons could put one of their strongest squads in years on the courts. As it turns out, her team didn’t disappoint. A.C. Flora won the Region IV-3A regular season title, then stormed through the state playoffs before losing to perennial power Myrtle Beach in the finals.

“When we started, I believed we had something unique. They came so close this past year and the year before that,” says Amy. 

It was the Falcons’ third appearance in the state championship in school history. They had to overcome the historic flood that ripped through the Midlands in October and missed practice for more than a week; rain delayed several of the playoff matches. But through it all, the Falcons became stronger.

River Bluff’s Hampton Scott defends the ball against Clover’s Matt Ringler. 

Freshman Alex Miller gets a hit  for Chapin against Union County in the second game of upper state finals. 

“We came together as a team and became really close,” says freshman No. 1 singles player Rachel Acco.

The Dutch Fork girls’ cross country team earned runner-up honors for a second consecutive season at the Class 4A state meet in November. Freshman Brianna Hartley, senior Hope Whisman and juniors Sara Steger and Hope Steger finished in the top 29 of the state to help the Silver Foxes finish behind Riverside for the second straight season. Coach Barry Lindler believes the program is here for the long haul now.

“These girls have bought into the program and have very high goals,” says Barry. “I think they understand that they belong at this level as long as they work and learn from practice to practice, race to race and season to season.”

Basketball once again provided the Midlands with one of  its most successful sports of the school year. The Spring Valley girls won their second straight Class 4A state championship, while the Dreher girls and A.C. Flora boys won Class 3A titles for the second time in the past three seasons. Irmo boys and Keenan girls finished runner-up so the Midlands had five representatives in the eight championship games.

“I’ve said this for a number of years, but if you expect to win a state championship, you almost have to win the city first,” says A.C. Flora boys coach Joshua Staley. “These kids all know each other and play with and against one another in the offseason. They bring out the best in one another. I think that competitive spirit carries over whenever you get to the playoffs and you want to do your best during that time of the year.” 

Spring Valley girls basketball coach Anne Long retired after winning her fourth state championship with the Vikings since 2009. The 41-year coaching veteran has won a state record of eight state championships overall. She was able to go out on top, seeing the rewards of another state championship for her players, which was very meaningful to her.

“They’ve all been very special and unique,” says Anne. “This group of seniors came up from the junior varsity program, and that doesn’t happen a lot. They came through our system and met the demands we asked of them. They got to experience this state championship and make history at Spring Valley to get back-to-backs.”

Dreher Blue Devil point guard Kamryn Lemon sets up a play in the state championship to secure a victory over the Myrtle Beach Seahawks. 

Lexington Wildcats forward, Brooke Power, fights to steal the ball from the J.L. Mann Patriots to win the state championship. 

Christian Hithe was the leading scorer for the Vikings during the season and in the championship game with 26 points. The senior capped her high school career by scoring her 1,000th point in the state championship game and winning back-to-back titles. “We got a ‘W’ with a wonderful group of girls,” Christian says. “I love them, and I love Coach Long. I can’t think of any better way to end my high school playing career.”

Dreher and A.C. Flora’s basketball teams capped the Weekend of Champions in early March by bringing state titles back to Richland One. Dreher won a state title for the third time in five seasons. Coach Teresa Jones believes this one was a little bit sweeter after the Blue Devils were eliminated in the upper state finals a year before. Add that to the fact that Dreher had to hold on in the closing minutes while the other two championship victories were won with wide margins.

“It does feel a little sweeter — I’m not sure why, but it does,” says Teresa. “The other two were blow outs, and this one we had to keep our composure, pull together as a team and fight for it. We were a bit overwhelmed because it was some of the girls’ first time being there. But we found a way to fight to the end.”

Senior Jhileiya Dunlap won South Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year honors after the season but couldn’t think of any better way to end her high school career than with a state championship in basketball for Dreher. In fact, she almost guaranteed it after the disappointment of the season before.

“I told my team after this past year, my goal was to take them to the championship,” says Jhileiya. “It was going to be my redemption for our losing last year. As soon as we lost to Lancaster, I went in the locker room and told my teammates that I was sorry we lost. It was my fault. It was very special to follow through on that promise and deliver another championship to Coach Jones and Dreher.”

Dutch Fork juniors Sara Steger and Hope Steger and freshman Morgan Johnson finish strong to take the state championship title.

Airport freshman Zach Roberts runs home in their game against the Brookland-Cayce Bearcats. 

A.C. Flora followed that Dreher win with one of its own. The two schools separated by less than five miles stood above every other program in Class 3A that night. The Falcons were in their third straight title basketball game. They won the title two seasons ago before falling short to Midland Valley in 2015. Thanks to the efforts of James Reese and Kendale Hampton, A.C. Flora was able to claim the fifth title in program history by exact a bit of revenge along the way.

“It feels great because it was revenge,” says James. “We put in all that hard work in the offseason and had trust in our coaching staff. And we had trust in each other. We are some hard workers and would do anything to get back to the top.”

It was sweet redemption for Coach Joshua Staley as well. Staley was 0-4 in three title game appearances as coach of the Orangeburg-Wilkinson girls basketball team before taking over at A.C. Flora before the 2014-2015 season. “It’s more humbling than exciting,” says Joshua. “When you get an opportunity to win and accomplish your goal while leading a bunch of great young men, it feels so good to see them successful. It’s all very humbling.”

The spring sports closed out the school year with soccer reigning supreme in the area. The River Bluff boys, Lexington girls and Chapin boys and girls all were able to compete for a state championship.

Lexington took the state’s only unbeaten record into the title matches. River Bluff had never reached a state title game in the school’s three-year history, but they have experience on their side in the fact that Coach Phil Savitz has 14 state championship game victories during his time as coach at Irmo.

Chapin has never won a state championship in girls’ soccer, and it’s been since 2003 that the boys won a title. 

White Knoll and Airport baseball each reached the lower state championship series. Chapin and Lexington softball also played in upper and lower state championship series, respectively, as well.

The success reached by all schools in the Midlands is a direct result of the commitment the players, coaches and fans strive for each and every year. With a solid nucleus of coaches and younger players that have already excelled, the future of the high school sports scene in Columbia is as bright as ever.

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