FORT MILL -- The Fort Mill Yellow Jackets finished 7-5 last year, their first winning football season since going 10-3 in 1998, and at 4-2, were third in Region 3-AAAA.
Duplicating that success has been placed in the hands of coach Ed Susi. He replaced Rusty Jester, who left after one season for the open job at Fort Mill's new high school, Nation Ford.
It wasn't what the nearly 40 seniors on this year's team envisioned. Counting their freshman year, when most were on the 9th-grade team, they are playing for their fourth coach in four seasons.
Greg Taylor, now an assistant at South Pointe, was the coach when they were sophomores.
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Jester left after some soul-searching, saying he was drawn to starting a program from the ground up.
Susi, who's from Ohio, was the coach at Weddington, N.C., four seasons before taking over the Yellow Jackets. Being so close was a bonus for the folks who picked Jester's replacement.
But it's a minor detail. The guy knows football.
He was all over the field Wednesday, yelling instructions and demanding his players to get it right the first time. He didn't hesitate to get in a player's face and ask why he had messed up. Then he told him how to do it right.
He has his players' attention, but his hardest job will be getting them to adapt to their third offensive system in three years.
"Coach Taylor was calm most of the time,'' said Jared Shaw, a returning starter at defensive back. "Coach Jester would get in your face and yell at you, but not a lot. Coach Susi is like that, but he's more vocal. We really like him.
"The big thing is the changes. Under coach Taylor, we ran basically out of the pro-I on offense. Coach Jester liked the spread. Coach Susi prefers the option. None of the offenses are anything alike, but the adjustment hasn't been hard as far as the head coaches go.''
Susi likes what he's seen. The players got in their workouts over the summer and don't have to spend long periods of time on conditioning.
And being Fort Mill's third coach in three years hasn't been a factor because he knows what it's like. He was the school's third coach in four years at Weddington.
What bugs Susi the most is numbers. The team will have 40 seniors when a couple more players come out, but having only nine juniors is a problem.
"Rusty took most of our juniors and sophomores with him to Nation Ford,'' Susi said. "But we're out there working hard and it's beginning to show.
"It starts with faith and believing. It's about confidence, and all we can do is preach it and hope our kids hear what we are saying.''
Fort Mill and Nation Ford play Sept. 14. It's the beginning of a rivalry that Jester recently said will grow to the proportions of Rock Hill-Northwestern and York-Clover.
Susi said his players are already talking about the game. Motivation will not be a problem. The first shot has been fired.
"They'll use our stadium for home games until they get one,'' Susi said. "Our kids are already upset. Before school let out, the district came over and added red and black to our stadium, Nation Ford's colors, to go along with our blue and gold. Our guys don't like that at all.''
Throw in that the players at both schools grew up together and the picture of the stadium being packed that night. The small visitor's side will likely overflow and send Nation Ford parents to the home stands. Shouldn't be a problem because they've been sitting there for years.
Fort Mill returns one of the area's top defensive players in Chris Billingslea, a 6-foot-5, 225-pound defensive end. Last season he had 105 tackles, 11 sacks, 17 tackles for loss, four caused fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
Billingslea is excited about having another team in town and being part of starting the rivalry, even though it's his senior season. He said it will be "fun'' playing against his friends.
"It will be a big game for both teams, one of the games to see this season,'' Billingslea said. "They are starting a new program, but we should have the advantage because we have 40 seniors.
"We only lost two players to them that started for us last year, Dee Truesdale and Tony Hall. We lost some good players, but we had a strong bench and those guys, people like Chad Bonner, have moved right into starting positions. So we should be strong on defense again this year.''
Bonner agrees, but feels the entire team will be strong again because of Susi's tough summer conditioning program.
"This will be an exciting season, us with a new coach and the new high school opening,'' Shaw said. "If any team should start the rivalry with them, it's us. We are already looking forward to the game.''
n NOTE: Susi added three coaches, one familiar and the others from out-of-state.
Dave Thomas is back after spending last year at Northwestern. Adam Foltz, the defensive backs coach, and Brad Mercer, the 9th-grade coach, come from Ohio.
Mercer will coach the baseball team, replacing Darren Wilson, who has been promoted to assistant principal.
n BEEN THERE: Susi said playing in competitive Region 3-AAAA will not be a problem because he saw plenty of good teams when he coached at Weddington.
"It's kind of like jumping from the frying pan into the fire,'' he said. "When I was at Weddington, we played Independence, Butler and Myers Park.''
FORT MILL SCHEDULE
Aug. 24 South Aiken at Fort Mill 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 31 Fort Mill at Lewisville 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 7 Eastside at Fort Mill 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 14 Nation Ford at Fort Mill 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 21 Fort Mill at Boiling Springs 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 28 Fort Mill at York 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 5 Northwestern at Fort Mill 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 12 South Pointe at Fort Mill 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 19 Fort Mill at Rock Hill 8:00 p.m.
Oct. 26 Clover at Fort Mill 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 2 Fort Mill at Lancaster 7:30 p.m.