It wasn’t long after all the Gatorade and ice had been dumped and the handshake line completed that the tears started to well, then flow freely.
South Pointe football state championship celebrations have run the gamut the last four years. In 2014, when the Stallions won their first in a run of four consecutive titles, the celebration was wild, N.C. State’s Jimmy Valvano-jubilant, with players and coaches running onto the field as time expired, jumping, hugging, shouting, screaming. I remember a player doing some sort of snow angel-like movement while laying on the ground.
The following season was similar. Very few tears, if any.
Last year, 2016, was eerily calm. Three championships in a row will sedate a football team’s celebrating.
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Saturday night’s postgame was also fairly subdued, at least after all the Gatorade and ice either coated the sideline or Stallions coach Strait Herron’s back. But the difference from the previous three celebrations were the unabashed tears.
“We’re happy,” said senior offensive lineman Jaydon Collins. “It’s not just a team, man, it’s family.”
South Pointe’s talisman, QB Derion Kendrick, knelt at the end of a very long line of Stallions awaiting the state championship trophy presentation. Tear streaks skirted his nose, down his cheek and over the edge of his chin. All the swagger, the confidence, the competitiveness sidelined for a brief moment. Kendrick, who has joined Rock Hill’s club of one-name elite athletes (Stephon, Clowney, Cordarrelle, Worley) as “D.K”, wasn’t a future Clemson Tiger or finalist for several national player of the year awards, or even a potential NFL prospect. He was just a teenager.
“When you about to stop playing football with them, it hits your heart fast,” Kendrick said. “Being with them since we were Small Fry, and just growing up with them you would have thought this would never come. But it came fast.”
There may have also been a bit of relief. Seven of the Stallions played on all four state title teams and there was pressure to go out on top, especially with South Pointe major favorites to beat Hartsville for the third time in four years. Regardless of the game’s outcome, South Pointe players were probably going to end the night crying.
No member of South Pointe’s senior class would have had more pressure than Kendrick, who put in another game-winning effort in his final outing for the Stallions. Kendrick, who will be a college student this time next month, and his classmates finished with a 55-5 record over four years, and will end the season in the top-five of USA Today’s national rankings, the highest ever for a Rock Hill school. This Stallion senior class placed their school in the state’s elite club of teams to win four state titles in a row. Saturday night was the beginning of the team’s 23 12th graders going their separate ways.
“The senior group is seeing an end of an era. That senior group has been talked about since they were freshmen,” said South Pointe coach Strait Herron. “And they know right now they’re headed for a whole new stage in their lives. They love South Pointe, they love their coaches, they love their teammates, and they know right now, it’s over. It’s emotional for everybody. But you can’t be more proud of them.”
South Pointe was a burgeoning powerhouse when the group arrived to some fanfare in 2014. They leave with the school firmly entrenched as one of the best programs in the state. But the only thing that mattered to the tearful football players hugging each other on the field at Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday night was the end of the seemingly endless hours spent together in successful pursuit of championships.
“It’s emotional,” said senior receiver Scott Robinson Jr. “I’m gonna miss these guys. I’ve grown up with these guys since third grade. It’s crazy. We finally did it.”
They stared up at the crowd and the bright lights, wistful looks on young faces. The revelry was cut short by stadium employees shouting that the sprinklers were about to turn on. Then the team got locked out of its locker room for about 15 minutes. Waiting for the door to be opened offered the seniors an opportunity for more group photos. This was a night they needed to document especially well.