College-bound high school seniors can be pretty stressed this time of year.
College applications are generally due in December, with the life-shaping decision of where to go looming in the upcoming warmer months. For Chester senior Tommy Sanders, there is even more pressure to make the right choice: his 1-year-old daughter Makailyen.
“Yes sir, that was one of my main priorities, my daughter,” said Sanders.
Sanders, a standout football player the last four years for the Chester Cyclones, is in Myrtle Beach this week for Saturday’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives Bowl, formerly known as the North-South all-star game. He has a chance to enhance his future possibilities, and those of his daughter’s, with a good showing.
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“I’m excited,” said Sanders. “Last game of my high school career. I’m ready to play.”
Lower Richland football coach Darryl Page knew full well the kind of player he was getting when he picked Sanders for the North squad back in October.
In Chester’s 28-20 win over Lower Richland, Sanders ran the ball 16 times for 55 yards and two touchdowns, and completed 15-of-23 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown and an interception. His most crucial run was a four-yard touchdown scamper after the initial snap rolled back to him. He recovered, raced around the left side and plunged in near the pylon for the winning score with about a minute left.
“After watching the game and watching the film, I knew he was a kid we had to have,” said Page, who is coaching the North team in Saturday’s all-star game. “He’s had a great week here so far and he’ll see plenty of time Saturday, most likely on the offensive side of the ball.”
Chester struggled to a 2-8 season this fall, one that contributed in part to the recent resignation of coach Anthony Sterling.
But Sanders was a definite bright spot, whether running with the ball or throwing it down the field. He carried the ball 157 times for 556 yards and six touchdowns, a number lessened by considerable sack yardage, while completing 96-of-168 passes for 1,426 yards and 10 touchdowns, with just five interceptions. The five picks was a big improvement.
“He did have a phenomenal year as far as his turnover ratio, it was down a lot compared to years past,” said Chester offensive coordinator Chris Powell, who coached Sanders each of the last three years.
Sanders was initially chosen as an “athlete” for the North squad, but a broken collarbone for Andrew Jackson quarterback Kolby Whitley means that Sanders will primarily be playing quarterback, alternating with York’s Deshaw Andrews.
“We’ve only got two quarterbacks, so he’ll see plenty of time at QB,” Page confirmed.
That suits Sanders just fine. He threw for over 6,000 yards in his three years as the Cyclones’ quarterback and was even more dangerous running the ball.
“That’s one of the things that impresses you. When the throw wasn’t there, he could pull it down and make plays with his feet, and a lot of times he had to do that, he was able to consistently produce for them,” said Page, who led Wilson to the 2007 3A state title by beating Chester. “The way he’s been playing this week, it’s just indicative of what he’s done all season.”
Schools have recruited Sanders with the intention of playing him as a defensive back, a receiver or a quarterback; he prefers the latter but doesn’t seem too bothered either way.
“Quarterback is where I’ve gotten the most work at, so that’s probably the position,” Sanders said Wednesday night.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pounder verbally committed to Newberry about a week ago after a visit to the school with his daughter in tow; the Wolves coaching staff wants Sanders to play quarterback, though his versatility means he could end up anywhere on the field. Sanders also has offers from Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, Charlotte and Charleston Southern, and has taken official visits to Charlotte and Appalachian.
But Newberry differentiated itself from the Division I competition.
“It felt like home when I went on my visit,” said Sanders. “It wasn’t really about staying close to Chester. I was just trying to feel out where I felt comfortable at, and Newberry was the most comfortable spot.”
Sanders isn’t just juggling which school is best for him. He has others to think about, notably Makailyen and his girlfriend Montezsha Woods, the mother of his child whom he plans to marry, and there is no question that proximity to Chester was a key advantage for Newberry. Far from being turned off by Sanders having a child, Newberry’s coaches told Powell they were impressed by his maturity.
“The whole time they were sitting there talking, his daughter was with him and he told them ‘this is my No. 1 responsibility,’” said Powell.
Makailyen’s role in the situation explains why Sanders would spurn Division I interest for Newberry. It’s only a verbal commitment and there are still about eight weeks until National Signing Day, but the Wolves coaching staff has a recruiting coup on its hands if Sanders sticks.
“They are absolutely excited to have him,” said Powell. “It’s far enough out of Chester, but close enough to home so he can be there for his daughter.”
All that could change with a big performance Saturday. Chester made the third round of the 3A playoffs in 2012, but hasn’t been back to the postseason since and that’s kept Sanders largely out of the statewide limelight. Saturday he has a chance to show Palmetto State high school football fans what they’ve been missing.
“This is a reward for him for all of the hard work he’s put in,” said Powell. “He’s put in the extra hours in film study and it paid off for him. We talked to him Sunday and he was just so excited to be down there and be playing with some of the best athletes in the state of South Carolina.”