After last Friday’s bus switcheroo on the side of Interstate 85, York’s football program isn’t taking anything for granted.
That includes Friday’s home game in the second round of the 4A Division II state playoffs against River Bluff. Most would’ve assumed the Cougars would be playing another batch of Gators, the ones from Goose Creek who were seeded No. 1 overall in the bracket.
But after No. 16-seeded River Bluff’s 22-21 comeback upset in the first round, it’s David Bennett’s Gators (8-4) that will be making the trip up to York.
“It just goes to show you that in sports, anything can happen,” said Bennett, who coached Coastal Carolina from 2001 to 2010 before starting the River Bluff program last year. “We just haven’t given up, and continue to work hard no matter what the score is.”
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York (10-2) will be happy to avoid another bus ride, at least for a week. One of its buses over-heated several times on the way down to Westside, in Anderson, on Friday. One hundred Cougars players, all of their equipment, and all of the supplementary equipment switched buses on the side of the highway in chilly weather.
“Oh man, it was long, tiring, frustrating,” said senior Shrine Bowler Daurice Simpson.
The Cougars made it eventually, and raced out to a 30-6 halftime lead. But Westside had no nearby indoor facilities for visiting teams so York’s coaching staff decided to put the players back on the bus during the intermission. They got cozy and comfy in the heat, allowing the Rams to charge back and make it 30-28 in the third quarter.
“Played absolutely great in the fourth quarter,” said Carroll, whose team out-scored the hosts 14-0 in the final period to pull away for the 44-28 win. “But I don’t think some of those guys wanted to come off of (the buses).”
York – and the entire state – thought Goose Creek would be the Cougars’ second round foe; River Bluff’s upset tipped that plan on its head.
“The only thing that did, it saved us a three-hour bus ride,” said Carroll. “In fact it might be harder, because they were a 16 seed and won. So you’ve got to give them a lot of credit for traveling to Goose Creek and knocking those guys off.”
The win over Westside clinched York’s fourth straight 10-win season, never before accomplished in school history, at least modern times (since the 1960s). And with Goose Creek finished, and Northwestern and South Pointe in different classifications this postseason, a gleaming opportunity appears to have unrolled in front of the Cougars.
“We don’t really look at it like that,” said Simpson, who has shaken off the bout of strep throat he played through last Friday. “You can’t overlook nobody in the playoffs because everybody’s good.”
York’s coaching staff is fiercely guarding against any complacency. But it seems reasonable to wonder if teams haven’t taken River Bluff lightly all season. The Gators are in their first season of varsity football, and even lost to 2A team – Crescent – in September.
Southpaw quarterback Brandon Tillmon (6-foot-2, 215 pounds) has been pivotal in steering the Gators into the postseason. Tillmon, who has rushed for over 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns, was originally a defensive end and linebacker and will likely return to one of those positions in college.
“We moved him to quarterback because that got him touching the ball every snap,” said Bennett. “It’s been a group effort, but Brandon’s a talented kid.”
River Bluff has knocked off Fort Mill, North Augusta, Irmo, and now Goose Creek.
Goose Creek jumped out to a 21-0 halftime lead on Friday, and nearly made it 28-0 with an imposing drive to open the second half. But River Bluff linebacker/receiver Diante Petruso stripped the ball carrier near the goal-line and went 97 yards the other way for a touchdown. Those were the first of 22 unanswered points in the second half, Tillmon’s six-yard run inside the last minute ultimately winning the game. Bennett’s team converted all four of its fourth down opportunities, a statistic that doesn’t surprise Carroll.
“He’s a winner from Day One, and I’ll tell you one thing, him getting in high school football was bad news for a lot of dudes,” said Carroll. “He’s got ’em right. They’re playing great, they’re winning and they’re believing.”
This won’t be Carroll and Bennett’s first meeting. In fact, they go way back, first facing off as players in 1978 and then again in 1979 when Carroll was a Shrine Bowl-bound lineman at York and Bennett was the quarterback of Cheraw’s first state championship team. Bennett’s Braves won 15-14.
Near the end of the game, “I kicked him in the head because he was kind of mouthy,” said Carroll, grinning.
“Bobby will tell you him kicking me in the head while we were running the clock out was an accident,” said Bennett.
The two went on to play football together at Presbyterian College and have been good buddies since. When their teams face off Friday at York, there is no question which will be considered the underdog, at least in Bennett’s opinion.
“It’s the first year of varsity football, we’re the 16 seed and we’re still playing? We are the underdog,” he said.
The hosts are more than happy letting the Gators do the bus riding.
“The worst thing that can happen this week, maybe they’ll forget to bring us pregame meal or something,” said Carroll.