One of the hottest high school football programs in America sits in southern Rock Hill.
South Pointe’s back-to-back September games against Georgia powerhouse Buford and North Carolina heavyweight Shelby gave the Stallions an opportunity to become more than just “the school where Gilmore and Clowney went.”
The Stallions’ road win over Buford - winners of seven of the last 10 Georgia 5A state titles - was one of the biggest regular season high school football wins in Rock Hill history, and Strait Herron’s team followed that by handing four-time defending state champ Shelby its first loss in 26 games last Friday. Both victories garnered interstate bragging rights and national attention, including a pending story from Sports Illustrated and a Hudl documentary that will post on Facebook in early October.
How did South Pointe pull it off?
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The Herald’s Bret McCormick went behind the scenes in the week leading up to, and during, the big game against Shelby to see how the Stallions operate and how they would handle another unfamiliar, big-time opponent.
Sunday, 9:27 a.m.
Jason McManus is a whiz with South Pointe’s digital video system, Hudl.
It’s the Sunday morning after the Stallions’ successful trip to Georgia. The victory over Buford intensified the spotlight on a South Pointe team that is currently ranked seventh nationally by USA Today.
Shelby is next on the schedule. McManus flicks through clips of the Golden Lions’ games from the last month, calling out defensive alignments and the possible plays the Stallions could run against them. Seated around a table in various stages of lounging, fellow assistant coaches Welvin Simpkins (receivers), Mike Zapolnik (offensive line) and Robert Beckler (running backs) chime in intermittently.
One notices that Shelby’s college prospect linebacker Dax Hollifield usually plays toward “the trips,” a term for the side of the field with three wide receivers.
Simpkins points out that the Golden Lions’ defensive backs are “not as physical as what we’ve seen Friday,” referring to the Buford game still fresh on their minds.
All four agree that the Stallion offense should ride its screen game against Shelby. South Pointe only attempted five screen passes on 69 offensive plays against Buford, but McManus wants to double that against Shelby, running quick passes toward the sideline called “bubble screens” until the Golden Lions adjust. The crux of his game-planning is misleading the defense, for example throwing the ball out of a run formation. Key to that effort against the Golden Lions is trying to manipulate Hollifield, who McManus says has great instincts.
Looking at a screen pass that didn’t work for a Shelby opponent, McManus thinks the play would work for South Pointe because of receiver Scott Robinson Jr.’s excellent blocking on the perimeter. “He’s bringing it every week,” McManus said.
One of the coaching staff’s constant challenges is dealing with their players’ markedly different personalities. Motivational tactics that work for one might not work for another. The four coaches gathered Sunday morning discuss how to pull the best from speedy receiver Ty Good, who is also a talented baseball player. The coaches worry about him quitting football to concentrate on his pitching career, so a different tact is required when dealing with him. They also want to reward junior running back Donovan McClinton, whose effort in practice and production with the few touches he’s gotten in four games is noticed, with more opportunities against Shelby.
“You gotta’ keep them uncomfortable,” McManus said.
The week’s first meeting, in a quiet building devoid of students or noise, puts the previous game to bed and looks at foundational offensive plans for the following game. On Tuesday the offense works through its red zone plays. Thursday is for polishing.
Discussion turns to a series of intricate plays known as RPO’s, or “run-pass options.” But the main goal is to keep play-calling simple and take what the defense allows; talented QB Derion Kendrick showed how well he can play the previous Friday when McManus’ choices stick to that plan.
“We are patient,” McManus said, as a team on the screen forces a pass over the middle to a receiver surrounded by Golden Lions. Shelby intercepts the pass.
Offensive coordinators’ play-calling can’t be dictated by a need to show off all the cool plays bouncing around in their head.
“Think players, not plays,” Beckler adds.
Monday, 3:05 p.m.
Pronounced bangs nearly cover Patty Curley’s eyes. South Pointe’s head athletic trainer for the last four years is a busy person on the Monday following any Stallions football game, but especially after the physically bruising contest with Buford.
The Massachusetts native buzzes around to different training tables where players sit with ice bags plopped on bum knees or ankles. Some of the kids are hooked up to electric stimulation nodes, while running back Marice Whitlock lays on his side. Curley massages ultrasound gel on his torn MCL, part of a treatment called therapeutic ultrasound. Sound waves pass into the knee and the vibrations stimulate healing deep within the tissue.
Maybe there was a time when Monday was the busy day in the training room before activity tapered off later in the week. Not now.
“It’s like everyday,” said Curley. “Always doing something with them.”
She’s also a whiz at fixing helmets and the players’ go-to for one critical replacement part.
“I probably give out 10 to 15 mouthpieces a week,” she says, “with the vast majority right before kickoff.”
While some Stallions recuperate in the training room, 15 others meet in the auxiliary gym, for now a makeshift auditorium. Herron goes over two plays that cost South Pointe 14 points against Buford.
A snap flew over punter B.T. Potter’s head resulting in a touchdown, before Buford's Anthony Grant caught a Potter punt and returned it for another score. South Pointe's gunners - the most forward players on the punt coverage team - were too aggressive and off balance to corral Grant. Getting balanced to tackle the punt returner was a focus during Monday’s practice.
As Herron begins discussing South Pointe's fake punt plans for Shelby, the computer showing the play on the screen powers down.
“Piece of crap,” he mutters.
The computer eventually returns to life and Herron begins describing the fake punt play called “Oakland.” There is no guarantee that South Pointe will run the play against Shelby, but it is certain the Stallions need a better special teams performance.
“It's gonna be a huge game, lots of people,” Herron says as the group heads toward the exit. “Gotta' be smart and think.”
Tuesday, 4:35 p.m.
Eli Adams may have had one of his best games in Georgia, but he still has to pick up blocking pads with the rest of the defensive line before leaving South Pointe’s Tuesday practice.
Adams dominated Buford’s imposing offensive line, finishing with 14 tackles, four tackles for a loss and four quarterback hurries, and a safety on the final play of the game to clinch the Stallions’ 33-27 win. Defensive line coach Gerald Peake had Adams alternate inside and outside pass rush moves, keeping Buford’s right tackle off balance and tottering all night. That was particularly evident late in the game when Adams blew past him and sacked the QB for the safety.
“So many teams try to double-team him, chip him with running backs, hold him, cut him,” said defensive coordinator Jason Winstead. “Buford was more man-to-man, they were gonna block him with their big kid and Eli used his speed and got in their backfield and really caused some problems.”
Adams has played his best in the biggest games. The Virginia Tech commitment had 10 tackles, including two for a loss, a sack and a forced fumble against Mallard Creek’s monstrous offensive line a year ago, then forced a fumble returned for a touchdown by a teammate that killed off Hartsville for good in the 2016 state championship.
Adams’ dad, Daniel, leans on a fence as Tuesday’s practice ends. He knows a thing about big games after stepping up during Northwestern’s 1989 state title run when teammate and future NFL player Jeff Burris injured his ankle and was ruled out. Adams, the backup thrust into a main role, scored two touchdowns in the state championship victory and earned a place in Rock Hill football lore. Nearly 30 years later his son still hears about the game. Often.
The Shelby game offers Eli another chance to further cement his own big-game legend.
“We’ve got a lot of kids around South Pointe that the bigger the crowd, the big-time games, they love ‘em,” Winstead said.
During Tuesday’s practice Herron announces that if the team offense period goes well - every practice is divided into specifically timed periods, demarcated by a very loud buzzer - the team won’t have to run sprints at the end of practice. That perks the mood up even more.
“Be a leader,” grinning senior J.D. Good shouts to Derion Kendrick. In other words, “get us out of sprints D.K.”
The team offense period goes well. Kendrick is crisp, whistling the ball where it’s supposed to go and guiding the Stallion offense down the field quickly. Later, during the team defense period, one of the biggest roars of the day comes from a ninth grade scout team player faking out normally sure-handed open field tackler Justin Reese, a senior starter.
“You need a hug, Reese?” shouts Peake, one of the most gregarious members of the coaching staff.
A helping of humility - whether from an annoying ninth grader or from a veteran coach that always has a thorny retort ready - is always right around the corner at South Pointe.
Wednesday, 4:10 p.m.
South Pointe doesn’t practice on Wednesdays. Instead, receivers coach Welvin Simpkins presents a life skills talk for about 30 minutes and then the team divides into position groups for film study.
It’s well-timed because this Wednesday is a day where South Pointe football players and coaches are reminded how everything - on and off the field - can be lost in an instant.
Before Simpkins’ talk, principal Al Leonard and assistant principal Michael Belk address the team about a murky situation in which threats of violence were made toward schools in Rock Hill, resulting in a minor, but rumor-fueled, panic at several campuses across the city. Belk reiterated to the team the importance of doing little things right and being an example. One or two players not doing the right thing could ruin everything for the team, all 74 of them. Herron announces later in the week that two players are suspended indefinitely from the team, discipline stemming from Wednesday’s incident.
There also was the sobering news that defensive line coach Gerald Peake, one of the most popular members of the program, went to the emergency room Wednesday after his fingers went numb. The coaching staff later learns that Peake suffered what appears to be a mini stroke and will miss the Shelby game.
Simpkins tries to get the group focused after all that. He mentions the miniscule odds high school football players have of making the NFL, about 1.5 percent. A counselor at Rock Hill Schools’ T3 Elementary Center, Simpkins encourages the group to make goals and to verbalize and visualize them, part of his efforts to grow the Stallions as young men, not just football players.
“What do y’all want to do or be when y’all grow up?” he asks.
“Marry a rich girl!”
Afterward, the team splits up. Defensive players head to the stadium locker room before further splitting into position groups. Secondary coach Calvin McCullough sits on the side of a concrete locker room talking his group through the Hudl clips playing on a TV screen that senior cornerback Jamari Currence cues up with an iPad.
The group suggests different coverages - named after colors - for different Shelby offensive formations. McCullough points out the Golden Lions’ bunch formation, where three receivers line up close together. It’s safety/linebacker hybrid B.J. Davis’ responsibility to cover the bunch’s point man and rough him up before he leaves the line of scrimmage, throwing off the timing of the play.
McCullough and Currence hone in on a clip of the Shelby QB throwing a slant. The end zone view of the Hudl clip shows the QB staring at the receiver the entire route.
“Telling ‘ya Reese,” McCullough says to senior cornerback Justin Reese, “jump the ball. He ain’t looking at you, he’s looking at the receiver.” Reese nods.
The film the players watch had already been carefully dissected by the coaching staff three days earlier. Defensive coordinator Jason Winstead said his goal against each opponent is to try to take away their best three run plays and best three pass plays. South Pointe keeps its defensive game plan simple, enabling its players to play at peak speed. Like the offensive unit, Winstead doesn’t have to cook up a bunch of complicated schemes for each opponent.
“I’ll be the first to admit,” he said, “we’ve got really good players.”
Thursday, 9:15 a.m.
“Who wants to get this work?” Derion Kendrick asks as he strolls on to the tennis courts at South Pointe High School. Nathan Green’s weight-training class is outside in the Thursday morning heat playing tennis and Kendrick, the star Clemson football commit, teams up with fellow future college football player Jamari Currence to challenge a pair of classmates.
Kendrick and Currence are the only football players in this class because they’re both graduating in January to enroll early in college. The first class of the day offers a chance to see the two interacting with their classmates as regular students and not just college prospects with three or four stars next to their name.
Athletes, especially the best ones, often become synonymous with one dominant character trait, designations usually made by those that never get to know them away from sports. During football practices Kendrick is bouncy and goofy and cocky, challenging younger teammates with the guts to say something sassy to him and joking and play-fighting with assistant coaches. On Friday nights, Kendrick is a savage competitor, the emotions that drive him always on the cusp of boiling over.
He’s fiercely loyal, which makes him a leader of the South Pointe group even if he doesn’t always directly communicate like one. His teammates do not question whether he has their backs or not.
Talking to a reporter Thursday morning after 20 minutes of tennis, Kendrick is quiet, probably still waking up, but also thoughtful in his responses to questions.
“He’s one of the goofiest people I know,” said Kendrick’s doubles partner, Currence. “I’m with him every day and the time we spend laughing, I don’t know what else we could be doing in that time.”
Kendrick has transformed into a dual threat QB in just under a year, using the innate improvisational skills he often relied on in 2016 but running Jason McManus’ offensive scheme as it’s envisioned much more regularly this fall. He fires all kinds of passes with accuracy, including 60, 70-yard bombs on the run, and he’s still one of the biggest open-field running threats in the state.
“That quarterback, I don’t know why he can’t play quarterback at Clemson,” Buford coach John Ford said after Kendrick rushed for 211 yards and two touchdowns in Georgia. “That guy is elite.”
That’s unlikely with the best QB in Kendrick’s recruiting class, Cartersville, Ga.’s Trevor Lawrence, also headed to Death Valley.
Besides, Kendrick is a natural athlete and fits nearly any position a coach could dream up for him. During Thursday afternoon’s practice he spins mid-air to haul in a pass in the corner of the end zone during one of the few drills he runs at receiver each week. He could also channel his aggression and play safety like he did as a freshman starter on South Pointe’s 2014 title team.
And everybody on the tennis court chuckles or shakes their heads when he strokes a cross-court winner during a half-hearted game of doubles tennis Thursday morning.
Friday (day), 3:50 p.m.
Seniors go first in the pregame meal line. The whole group wolfs down steak, baked potatoes and salad in the cafeteria then the 70-plus players gradually mosey to the locker room to get dressed.
The three hours between the team meal and the march out to the stadium feels interminable.
“This is the worst time of day,” said linebackers coach Nathan Green, leaning against a wall.
The players come and go through a series of pregame meetings covering kickoff team, punt coverage, offense and defense. Almost all have headphones on, some walking purposefully, some bouncing and bobbing, some muttering the words pumping into their ears. A crew from Sports Illustrated that flew into to cover the game interviews Herron and several players.
In the auxiliary gym, Jason McManus and the offensive starters run through the first 10 plays that South Pointe will use.
“I’m ready,” he says when the meeting is over. “Feel really good.”
Defensive backs coach Calvin McCullough delivers a passionate devotional, his latest talk focusing on John The Baptist. The players’ headphones are off and most listen intently.
“John would call you out,” McCullough says, veins in his neck straining slightly.
After a prayer it’s time to head to the field for pregame warmups. Seniors again at the front of the line.
“‘Bout to get it rollin’,” says offensive lineman Jaydon Collins.
Friday (night), 6:50 p.m.
South Pointe players are gathered in the stadium locker room. The headphones are back on, halfway in most cases. There are no coaches in the locker room and suddenly the lights go out. Then they flick on and off before the dark settles and rap music explodes from a portable speaker.
The lyrics are drowned out by the players’ chanting. Specks of white cellphone flashlights wave in the players’ hands. Adrenaline washes over everyone in the cinder block room and it’s impossible not to get fired up for the game that’s still about 30 minutes away.
“I don’t raise them no other way!” Dexter Falls, the team’s discipline coach, shouts into a reporter’s ear as the music envelops the dark room.
The mosh pit lasts for a few goosebumpy minutes - a moment in time that captures the limitless and earned swagger that South Pointe football always exudes - and then the players trot to the field for warmups.
“Time to take ‘em off the chain!” Falls hollers.
With 25 minutes between the mosh pit and the game’s kickoff the Stallions’ level of intensity wanes and it’s almost no surprise that their first half is sluggish and sloppy.
Shelby’s game plan was spot-on early, the Golden Lions defense almost exclusively focused on limiting Kendrick’s running lanes. Lance Ware’s offense snaps the ball with less than 5 seconds remaining on the play clock nearly every play, dominating possession and limiting South Pointe’s offensive opportunities. The Stallions want to run around 70 plays, but only got 46 against Shelby. Herron says afterward that future South Pointe opponents will likely copy what the Golden Lions did.
Still, South Pointe’s control of the game from the second quarter is reminiscent of an older brother putting his annoying younger sibling in a headlock and slowly lowering them to the floor. The visitors are physically bigger than most of the Stallions but can’t match their speed, especially defensively. South Pointe’s defensive line is again impossible to block, with Jalen Pickett-Hicks notching 3.5 sacks and Adams adding two tackles-for-loss and six quarterback pressures.
“He never gets tired, bro!” says one of South Pointe’s backups on the sideline, though Adams does limp off the field late in the game with cramps wracking his legs.
Shelby’s best drive in the third quarter ends when a wide open Golden Lion drops a first down catch that would have extended the march into the Stallions’ red zone. Kendrick then unleashes his arm catapult with a 68-yard missile into streaking Ty Good’s stride for the touchdown that makes it 19-0.
A trickle of Shelby fans heading up the hill to the visitors’ parking lot turns into a stream in the fourth quarter. South Pointe drives the ball deep into the Golden Lions’ end of the field again but, with less than a minute to play, Herron calls a halt to the proceedings. The seconds wind down on another huge win, another huge week for South Pointe football.
Saluda Trail Middle School’s Chonce Dunham and Clayton Moton huddle with Gilmore Jr., Adams and Kendrick after the Stallions scatter postgame. Dunham and Moton remind the three stars that they taught (before they were stars) to not let any distractions get in the way of South Pointe’s special season, especially with region games - the only ones that count in South Carolina - commencing in six days. The players then take turns postgame interviewing with a gaggle of media that includes newspapers, radio, TV and recruiting web sites, while Herron reflects on a typically frenetic and tiring week that ended well.
“We had some distractions and the guys did a good job working through them,” said Herron. “It’ll be great to get Peake back. I know we’ll see him next week, eventually. And we had some other issues but they’re actually good for teenagers, something to learn from.”
There was barely time to enjoy the success. The next game, at Ridge View, comes a day early on a Thursday because of Ridge View’s stadium-sharing deal with Blythewood. South Pointe’s offensive and defensive coaches met again Saturday morning in a quiet and empty school. And started the process all over again.