Walking off the field a state champion, South Pointe defensive backs coach Calvin McCullough couldn’t resist one last bit of teaching.
Turning to senior cornerback Devion Williams, McCullough said, “if you had listened to me half the time, you could have had twice as many interceptions.”
Both shared a wry smile.
South Pointe (12-3), at one point earlier this season staggering with a 2-3 record, rattled off 10 straight wins, the final one coming Saturday evening at Williams-Brice Stadium in the 3A state championship game. It was a 21-7 smothering of Hartsville (14-1) that showed off the Stallion defense.
“Welcome to South Pointe defense. That’s what we do,” said Stallions coach Strait Herron, who claimed his second state title in four years.
Hartsville came into the game undefeated and averaging 376 offensive yards per game, churning up turf with its ruthless wing-t rushing attack. But the Stallions held the Red Foxes, who won the 2012 3A title with an undefeated season, to just 210 total yards and only 95 rushing on 35 carries.
“We knew they were real heavy run, and we feel like if you’re gonna run the football and not even respect the pass, we can add people to stop it,” said South Pointe defensive coordinator Jason Winstead, who also commended the Stallions’ scout team for effectively replicating Hartsville’s scheme in practices leading up to the game.
South Pointe grabbed a 14-0 halftime lead to put the Red Foxes and their run-based offense in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable position. But Jeff Calabrese’s team halved the lead on a touchdown run with 53 seconds left in the third quarter.
At a crossroads in a season that essentially started last December, the Stallions responded in state champion fashion. Quarterback Greg Ruff guided South Pointe 63 yards on nine plays, the final snap of the drive a 17-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Josh Wilkes, who cushioned the ball with a cloud-soft over-the-shoulder catch for the six points with about nine minutes left to play.
“That touchdown right there made them lose their momentum,” said Wilkes, after a quick photo shoot with his family in the stands. “It was a fade route. I really jumped late, but as you see, my arms are long.”
“Unbelievable,” is the word Herron used to describe Wilkes’ grab. “We try to get our guys as much help as we can with colleges; if somebody doesn’t notice that guy, they’re missing a boat. There’s probably some right now thinking, ‘hey man, keep that name quiet.’ Great throw and a great catch.”
South Pointe’s 14-0 lead was the Red Foxes’ second-biggest halftime deficit of the season. Hartsville trailed Marlboro County 16-0 earlier this season, before coming back to win.
In a 24-minute first quarter, South Pointe only had the ball for 2 minutes, 20 seconds, running seven plays for just 13 yards. Hartsville was unable to transfer its domination of the clock into points on the scoreboard, though, a pair of drives sputtering out.
South Pointe took the lead in the second quarter, piecing together a 10-play, 80-yard drive to jump out 7-0. Zaylin Burris ran for 13 yards on first down, before Ruff lofted a 30-yard pass into Nick McCloud’s arms. Ruff, who was 13-of-18 for 154 yards and three touchdowns, then found Quay Brown leaking out toward the left corner of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown with 9 minutes, 39 seconds left in the first half.
The Stallions doubled their lead after forcing a Hartsville three-and-out, and punt. Brown caught consecutive first down balls from Ruff, before the junior QB scrambled away from chasing Red Foxes to fire a 27-yard pass to Deshawn Davis at the Hartsville 9. Ruff later hit Brown in the back of the end zone for another touchdown and a 14-0 lead with 3 minutes, 51 seconds left in the half.
Brown caught a pair of touchdown passes for the second straight week.
“We like throwing the ball to him,” said Herron. “Very, very proud of him and happy that he’s with us.”
South Pointe out-gained Hartsville 147-6 in offensive yardage during the second quarter to take control of the game. After Hartsville’s brief third quarter revival, highlighted by one of its just two red zone appearances, Herron’s squad reclaimed the upper hand early in the fourth quarter en route to the school’s third state championship in nine years of varsity football action. What a turnaround for a team that looked buried in September.
“The rewarding part is that we taught our kids that it’s a team game,” said Herron. “It takes every single one of us and it doesn’t matter who you are, you’ve got to play for the team, not for yourself. We had guys I know for a fact were thinking, ‘man, I got to get into college, I’ve got to get a scholarship,’ and it wasn’t about us as a team, it was about them individually. They changed that attitude and decided, ‘hey, we need to win football games.’”
The Stallions felt mighty good - they looked almost relieved during postgame revelry - at the top of the 3A mountain after an arduous hike full of the usual headaches, stress and bruising learning experiences of high school football. That afforded McCullough the chance for one last joking “I-told-you-so” as they headed into a locker room full of teenagers and grown men freaking out alike.