Wherever the Rock Hill Bearcats play football - whether on the road or at District Three Stadium - they have to ride a bus home after the game.
Bubba Pittman’s team has won three straight games, the first time the program has done that since 2011, so those last three bus rides must have been pretty rowdy, right?
“The Nafo bus ride was real exciting,” said Pittman, referring to the Bearcats’ 36-14 win over Nation Ford. “The last two we’ve been so exhausted, and I’m on the offensive bus and we ran the football and it’s been a physical, physical game, that they were just exhausted. The other bus might have had a little more fun than we had. Our guys, we’re trying to play music and get ‘em going and they’re just tired!”
Rock Hill only won four games total the last two seasons but faces eternal rival Northwestern on Friday knowing a win would clinch the region championship. The Bearcats (4-5, 3-0 Region 4-5A) haven’t played for a region title since 2009, the last time they won one. That year was also the last season Rock Hill had a winning record and many point to it as the beginning of the Bearcats’ slide. After finishing the regular season 11-0, Joe Montgomery’s team was upset in the first round of the playoffs by Spartanburg. Results, atmosphere, confidence and player participation have slid downhill since.
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But this last month has felt different.
Can Rock Hill Bearcats football turn the corner?
Has it already?
Friday’s game against the Trojans, who have beaten Rock Hill 10 of the last 11 times, will better answer that question but the recent signs are encouraging.
Rock Hill’s defense has allowed just 43 points in the last three games, its stingiest defensive stretch since 2010 when the Bearcats allowed just 37 in a three-game span. That’s a testament to first-year defensive coordinator Jason Layman. Pittman said “the stuff he does makes it fun for them,” referring to Layman, the former South Mecklenburg assistant, sending more blitzes and encouraging his defenders to cut it loose. Ten of the top-11 tacklers return next season.
In the 24-13 win at Clover last Friday, senior Des Buchanan topped 100 yards rushing for the seventh time in nine games this season, and the fifth game in a row. He’s sitting at 1,146 yards on the season, and appears to be the first Bearcat to top the 1,000-yard mark since Jamal Tyler, back in 2009. Pittman chuckled when asked at what point in the season he -- a devotee of the Air Raid offense -- fully committed to the run.
“I still am not committed to running the football. I want to throw the football,” he said, laughing. “We’re trying to take what the other team is giving us. I get those guys in my ear from up top saying, ‘hey, man let’s run the football,’ and then you’ve got Desmond sitting back there, who is just a load to tackle.
“I don’t know that there has been a moment where we were sitting in here saying ‘we’re gonna abandon the pass and become a run team.’ We’re still an Air Raid team. It’s just what people are giving us right now.”
Because of Rock Hill’s struggles the last eight years -- and maybe Pittman’s reticence to embrace a playing style that brought the Bearcats two state titles --, most still won’t be convinced that the Bearcats are back on the right path unless they beat Northwestern. But there are reasons to believe Rock Hill is on the right path regardless of Friday’s outcome.
More realistic scheduling
First and foremost, the Bearcats will play a more realistic -- i.e. easier -- schedule in 2018-19. Pittman has taken over the football team’s scheduling, which means the end, for now, of playing Spartanburg-area powerhouses in the first half of the season.
Without the points system in place for determining playoff positions, there is simply no incentive to play four of the best teams in the state in a row in non-region games like Rock Hill has the last three or four years. Boiling Springs, Dorman and Gaffney haven’t brought great numbers of fans to District Three Stadium, negating any financial incentive for the Bearcats. Rock Hill lost to those three teams by a combined 134-58 this year and Pittman said his team lost five injured starters during the Gaffney game last year, one of the root causes of the Bearcats’ 70-28 loss to Nation Ford the following week. That powerhouse Gaffney contributed to the unquestioned low point of Pittman’s four-year tenure isn’t a surprise.
Indian Land, Lugoff-Elgin and Sumter, three of Rock Hill’s 2018 non-region opponents, don’t carry the historic or current weight that Dorman or Gaffney does, and they usually don’t have the same talent levels either.
Clover, Lancaster and Chester are great examples of programs that were rebuilt in recent years thanks to smart scheduling. Rock Hill can join that club very soon.
Hanging on to players
None of the three city high schools’ football teams will benefit more from the 2017-imposed intra-district transfer rule, which forces athletes seeking to transfer schools within the city to sit out a year, than Rock Hill.
Sure, Bearcat players will still probably leave the school, something that happens at every high school in the state. But the year on the sidelines -- as long as the player transfers to South Pointe or Northwestern -- will force most families to think long and hard about the move. Pittman’s program has been ravaged by talented players transferring, particularly to South Pointe and Northwestern, which combined for eight state titles since the Bearcats’ last championship, in 2004.
It’s important for student-athletes and their families to be able to do what’s best for the kid. But one positive of the intra-district transfer rule is it makes families seriously consider their decision. They can no longer rush into a move to one of the two other nearby schools in the heat of anger following a Friday night in which their son didn’t play as much as they wanted.
“Depth has always been an issue for us,” said Pittman, referring to his time at the school. “We’re not blessed with four deep of guys that can get in there and go.”
The intra-district transfer rule should help Pittman continue to build that needed depth.
A strong group to build around
The transfer rule is even more important for Pittman and Rock Hill football now because they have a sophomore class they think they can build around.
This has been said before in recent years by Pittman and his predecessor, Montgomery, but by the time previously lauded classes reached senior year important members had left for South Pointe or Northwestern.
There have only been a handful of seniors in Rock Hill’s starting lineup this season, and although they are some of the best players there is hope moving forward. Sophomore receiver Antonio Barber looked like the productive game-breaker the Bearcats haven’t had in a few years (before suffering a lower leg injury that’s ruled him out) and junior Narii Gaither is a launched missile whether he’s playing linebacker or carrying the ball. Gaither maybe embodies this current batch of Bearcats more than any other; he’s undersized but plays harder and faster than anyone on the field and is the team’s leading tackler by more than 40.
Pittman saw his team doing the right things during the 1-5 start, but was thrilled with the team’s response to heavy non-region losses, namely their persistence.
“They easily could have packed it in for the season and they did not waver,” he said. “We were 1-5 and we go to Nafo and we’re down 14-nothing. It easily could have went the other way. The look in their eyes hadn’t changed, they still believed they could win the football game.”
What’s next for Pittman and the Bearcats? The dynamics of the city -- South Pointe and Northwestern’s pedigree and school zoning geography -- mean it will be more difficult to sustain success than in the 1980s or 1990s. But it shouldn’t be a noteworthy accomplishment for the Bearcats to annually win more games than they lose. Or for the postgame bus rides to be subdued out of expectation, and not just exhaustion.