A pass flashes into the gut of a Rock Hill Bearcats slot receiver on Thursday morning and several coaches instantly shout in unison, “get north!”
Bubba Pittman was urging the receiver to run vertically toward the end zone, the same direction he’s steering the Rock Hill football program. How long it will take the Bearcats to “get north” is hard to tell.
“People ask me, ‘what’s Rock Hill gonna look like?’ We’re gonna be better,” said the Bearcats’ first-year head coach after his team’s practice. “But we’re playing some stiff competition.”
The non-region slate includes Blythewood, South Pointe, Chester, Dorman and 2013 Big 16 state finalist Sumter and the region schedule is typically difficult. The teams on Rock Hill’s schedule won 60 percent of their games last season. So even as the Bearcats might be getting better, their outlook for the 2014 season is as clear as a puddle of mud.
Never miss a local story.
Maybe an easier schedule would smooth over some of the program’s shortcomings, but that doesn’t jibe with Rock Hill’s tradition. Ten years ago this December, Rock Hill beat Stratford 21-7 to win its second state title in three years. Perennial dominance looked imminent.
The most points the 2002 team allowed in a game was 21, and they posted five shutouts en route to a 15-0 season and the school’s first state championship since South Carolina’s schools desegregated. The 2004 teamnotched four shutouts, but held 10 of its 14 opponents to single-digit scoring on the way to the second championship.
These were ridiculously good football teams that won 29 out of 30 games and a pair of championships. The 2003 team, positioned in between, didn’t win a state title but were 11-2. Those three squads combined were 39-3. Imminent dominance never materialized, but Jim Ringer’s teams possessed a single-minded forcefulness.
Young men pulling on the black-and-garnet uniforms these days need to know these things. Rock Hill is 16-31 in the past four seasons, with no playoff victories since 2008.
“It’s hard to kind of believe when you been losing,” said Rock Hill secondary coach Ko Simpson, who starred on both sides of the ball for the 2002 team before graduating in 2003 and becoming a South Carolina Gamecock, and eventually an NFL player.
“So, we got to get that taste out of our mouth. That’s what we’ve been trying to preach around here, these coaches, we try to let these kids know the tradition that Rock Hill has. I don’t think a lot of these kids know that.”
A recent MaxPreps article ranked Rock Hill as the 18th most dominant football program in South Carolina since 2004, when the website launched. If the 2002 title was included, that rank would probably be higher. Instead of the dominance that Simpson was used to, a mopy rot set in the past few years. The championships of 10 and 12 years ago might as well be past eons from the dark.
“These kids were probably 7, 8 years old, 5 years old then,” Pittman said. “A lot of those guys, they don’t remember Rock Hill as a state champion. But they do see the NFL guys walking around, they understand the tradition that we have here. We’ve just got to get it back. We talk about it every day.”
Adding salt to the situation was the instant success experienced by South Pointe, a school opened in 2006 that instantly carved out a chunk of the athletes that Simpson remembered dotting the Rock Hill roster in the early 2000s. Northwestern and South Pointe have each won two state titles in the past six years.
“Us, we come last in that group,” Simpson said.
There is no quick fix for Rock Hill’s current situation, no magic redrawing of the school attendance lines zooming down the political pipe to save the day. The Bearcats’ renaissance will be a drawn out process, likely taking a couple of years. That’s not easy to stomach, but Pittman wants people to know that the effort isn’t being shorted.
“These kids have definitely put in the work,” he said. “They were here five days a week during the summer, and their dedication has got us way ahead of the game, especially when we look back to where we were last year. We’re way ahead of the curve. We’ve just got to keep growing.”
The status of Rock Hill’s football program isn’t lost on the players, especially the seniors.
“It motivates us a lot. We try to get ourselves better to become better than the team across town,” said senior running back Brandon Croutch, pointing toward west Rock Hill, “and South Pointe. So we try to bust our tails after practice to become better than we are right now.”
The most precious, and difficult to maintain, resource is patience. It certainly won’t come from the stands, and probably not in the car rides home from practice.
“We just try to teach toughness to our kids, and family, and leaning on each other,” Pittman said. “We’ll let what happens on the field speak for itself.”
That message is getting through. One thing uniting these Bearcats is their underdog status in Football City USA.
“When everybody’s not playing together, nothing ever works, we can’t get anything done,” said two-way standout DeShaun McFadden, another senior and one of the team’s leaders. “But this year, everything’s going right on offense and defense. We’re gonna be a lot better.”
Those who vividly remember those black-and-maroon glory days see a bright future, one headed in a northern direction. “Diamonds Up,” as the Bearcats say at the end of practice.
“He’s a very organized guy and he’s got a plan in place,” said Simpson, one of two former NFL players on the Bearcats staff, along with Gerald Dixon. “Us, as coaches, we’ve got to buy into it, and the players, they’ve got to buy into it, and we’ve got to get the job done. Since Bubba took over, I see it going in the right direction. We’ve just got to keep grinding, keep working.”