COLUMBIA -- It didn't really dawn on Darryl Page until the trip back to Florence last week.
After defeating Crestwood for the Class AAA Lower State title, the Wilson coach was riding home with his son.
"Daddy, we're going to Columbia?" Page's son asked.
"Yes, we're going to Columbia," Page responded.
After 15 years of hard work, patience, struggles and triumphs, Page's Tigers are headed to the state title game.
For the first time since integration, the Wilson football team will play for the state championship today at Williams-Brice Stadium.
The Tigers' unexpected playoff run is even more remarkable considering they've fielded more talented teams in recent years.
Wilson products like Lawrence Timmons and Justin Durant have gone on to play professionally, while a host of others made it to the collegiate level. Yet none of those players was able to help the team reach the state championship.
That's what makes this group so special.
"Chemistry," Page said. "This team has a lot of chemistry, and it was unexpected. We started the year coming off a good season where we surprised a lot of people, but we lost some talent from that team. But these kids played together, and we had a lot different guys step up and be leaders.
"After those back-to-back losses to Crestwood and Marlboro County, we really came together. We knew we were going to be on the road for the playoffs and the kids never panicked and did what we asked them to do. This is where it's gotten us."
The Tigers finished third in their region, forcing them to hit the road for the playoffs. Wilson thrived on being the underdog.
"I think a lot of people had doubts about us the whole season," Wilson defensive end Keith Filmore said. "Going into games, people didn't expect us to win. That was just encouragement for us to get the job done. We really came together on road games and rallied around each other. We went out and played our best games after that."
The result is a 7-1 record away from Memorial Stadium.
The Tigers have one last opponent: Chester.
The Cyclones have rushed for more than 2,700 yards and thrown for more than 2,200. Defensively, they've allowed an average of 11.3 points per game this season and posted seven shutouts.
"They're a very balanced team and very athletic," Page said. "You can't really key on one thing. They're very good on both sides of the ball."
Chester quarterback Gene McCaskill, wideout C.C. Whitlock and cornerback Terrell Springs are committed to Division I colleges. McCaskill and Whitlock often trade positions, allowing them to be the team's top passers and receivers.
Stopping them will be the job of a Wilson defensive unit that's very experienced, especially in the secondary.
"We've been together for a while, so we do feel like we're a strong part of this team," Wilson defensive back Derek Belin said. "We've risen to every challenge so far, and we've created a lot of turnovers, so hopefully we can do more of the same against Chester."
Offensively, the Tigers implemented a two-quarterback system this season with much success. Richard Cue and Maliek McCall have combined to throw for 1,878 yards and 21 touchdowns. McCall has added another dynamic with 369 rushing yards.
"It's worked for 14 weeks, so no need to change it now," Page said. "I think it's going to be important for both quarterbacks to use their individual talents to help us move the ball and put some points on the board. They've both done a great job thus far."
Slowing Chester's attack and moving the ball are two goals dependent on the offensive and defensive lines, Page said. And just as they've been all postseason, turnovers will be a major factor as well.
"As an offensive line coach, I believe games are won in the trenches," Page said. "If we get solid play there, and make sure we eliminate our mistakes and force a few from them, that will give us a good opportunity to win."