Sports

Seeing red

From left, Chester's Jazmond "Jazz" Strong, Mario Hughes and Demeico Hopkins lead the Cyclones' punishing defense.
From left, Chester's Jazmond "Jazz" Strong, Mario Hughes and Demeico Hopkins lead the Cyclones' punishing defense.

CHESTER -- It's not unusual for a football team to take on the personality of its coach.

We're not talking about a head coach. This is about the coaches that are in charge of different units, such as Chester defensive coordinator Will Mitchell. He's loud, brash, knows what he's talking about and his players love him.

What the Cyclones have picked up from him is intensity. Several said they would run through a brick wall if that's what Mitchell asked.

And he's made them believers.

Chester plays Wilson at 6 p.m. Saturday at Columbia's Williams-Brice Stadium for the Class AAA state championship. The last time Chester made it this far was in 1963, when the Cyclones beat Eau Claire for the title.

Mitchell will depend heavily on his 11 starters to bring home another trophy.

"There are two things that makes our defense stand out,'' Mitchell said. "They have improved as a group from the first day of practice. And there are the intangibles, especially their hearts. These kids play hard for 45 minutes and never let up.

"This team sees the big picture. We've made it our goal in the past to make it to the state championship. This team realized from the beginning that it was within reach. The closer to it we've moved, the better they have played.''

The Cyclones lead the state with seven shutouts this season and have won their last seven games. During the streak, Chester has given up an average of 68 rushing yards, and according to Mitchell, no team has gone over 100.

Points-wise, they have allowed an average of 8 per game and although the passing yards have been "up and down,'' Mitchell said teams are averaging 105 yards.

Mitchell loves numbers, but he loves pitching shutouts and winning more. In last week's Upper State championship game, Chester shut out a Union County team that has two very good backs, 16-0.

He's done it in an unorthodox way.

"We use three linemen and five linebackers in our defense,'' said Jazmond "Jazz" Strong, a 5-foot-9, 215 pound junior defensive end. "Our biggest players on defense are our linebackers. We're actually small on the line because coach Mitchell wants speed up there.

"This defense is a tight group. We know if we miss or make a bad play, a teammate has our back. We've seen it happen against our offense numerous times at practice, so when we play a game we know someone will be there to pick us up.''

The other defensive end is 6-1, 210 senior Demeico Hopkins. The other lineman is Bobby Jackson, a 5-11, 225-pound senior.

The Cyclones (12-2) have good overall numbers for the season. They are allowing 96 rushing yards, 95 passing yards and 8.86 points per outing. Their offense, a unit just as powerful, is running for 198 yards, passing for 161.5 and scoring 32.7 points an outing.

Mario Hughes, a 5-11, 235-pound senior linebacker, said five defensive starters are back from last year's team. What's been a bonus is the players new to their starting roles have blended well with the talented holdovers. Most of all, he credits Mitchell.

"We have those shutouts because he's produced them,'' Hughes said. "Coach Mitchell designs what he wants us to do depending on what kind of offense we're facing and tells us on Friday nights to go out and execute.

"Coach Mitchell brings the energy to the team that we need. Sure, if we miss a play, he'll fuss and yell a little, but he's all right. He knows when a mistake happens, we'll make up for it on the next play.''

Hughes is the team's second-leading tackler with 102. The leader is Mike Walker, a 5-6, 175-pound junior linebacker, with 105. The other starting linebackers are senior Travis Tolliver, sophomore Mario Hinton and freshman Troy Sanders.

Hopkins is about as quiet as a church mouse off the field. On the field, he's a steamroller, with 61 tackles, six sacks, 15 tackles for loss, three caused fumbles and an interception.

"Everybody out there hits and hustles,'' Hopkins said with an amount of prodding. "The only long play I can remember this season is a touchdown pass that Blythewood scored on us. Other than that, I can't remember any other except a couple on special teams.''

It's all finally come together, four years in the making since Victor Floyd took over the program four seasons ago. Chester's kids want it, want it bad. It shows in their eyes. It shows when they ride through town and see signs in front of nearly every business wishing them well.

Hughes said Wilson reminds him a lot of Chester's rival, Fairfield Central -- good size, runs good routes and likes to pass over the top. Chester beat Fairfield Central in the final game of the regular season, then two weeks later in the playoffs.

That doesn't mean the Cyclones are taking Wilson for granted.

Hopkins moved to Chester in the eighth grade, then moved away at the end of the school year. He came back for good before his sophomore year.

"It feels great going to the state championship with these guys,'' he said. "I really haven't really known all of my teammates that long, but in the short time I've known them, they have become my brothers. Coming back was the best move I've ever made.''

Come to heraldonline.com all week for extended coverage of Chester and Clover as they seek state championships.

• Tuesday: Video coverage of Monday's press conferences, with player and coach interviews.

• Wednesday: VIDEO: Folks in Clover send their well-wishes to the Eagles.

• Today: VIDEO: Folks in Chester send their well-wishes to the Cyclones.

• Friday: Get quarter, halftime and final scores of the Clover game.

• Saturday: Get quarter, halftime and final scores of the Chester game.

Plus:

PREP FOOTBALL WEB SITE: Stories, videos, photo galleries and podcasts can be accessed at www.heraldonline.com/preps.

BYERS REPORT: Prep writer Barry Byers talks about the state championships and interviews Chester coach Victor Floyd on his podcast.

FORUMS: Comment about the playoffs at http://community.heraldonline.com/forum.

• What: State football championships

• Where: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia

When:

Class AAAA Division II, Beaufort vs. Clover, 8 p.m. Friday

Class AAAA Division I, Summerville vs. Byrnes, noon Saturday

Class AA: Chapman vs. Cheraw, 3 p.m. Saturday

Class AAA: Wilson vs. Chester, 6 p.m. Saturday

• Tickets: On sale at each participating school in the main office. Chester tickets also on sale at Black's Drug Store in Chester. $8 advance, $10 at the gate.

• Note: The Class AAAA Division I game was originally scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday but will start at noon. The S.C. High School League switched it with the Class AA game, which will be played at 3 p.m.

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