Dillon has only allowed one rushing touchdown this season.
In 12 games.
This is a typically dominant Wildcats team that Chester faces in Friday’s (not Saturday’s) 3A state championship game at Williams-Brice Stadium. Jackie Hayes will lead Dillon out on the final day of the high school football season for the seventh straight year. His teams won five of those six previous state title games.
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“Nobody really understands how hard it is to get back to this game and to be able to do it seven times in a row is really amazing,” said Hayes. “But sometimes we get spoiled in life, and I think some of our fans are spoiled and sometimes they have unrealistic expectations.”
When South Pointe won its fourth straight state championship in 2017, the team’s celebration was somewhat muted, the first-time surprise mostly dissipated. It was still exciting to win, but there was a degree of expectation and almost relief.
Those are feelings to which Hayes and his Dillon Wildcats can relate.
“It’s a standard and everybody knows just make it back to Williams-Brice. That’s it. We have to do it,” said senior defensive Shakai Jeanty. “We just don’t want to be the team that didn’t do it, the class that didn’t make it back.”
Hayes took over the Dillon program in 1992. He’s won 301 games and lost just 56. His longevity means there are no surprises for freshmen when they join the program from middle school. Rondrick McCrimmon was one of Dillon’s two player representatives for Monday’s state championship press conference. His dad played for Hayes on Dillon’s 1994 state finalist team.
“I guess I’m getting so old now that I’ve had an opportunity to coach a lot of my former players’ children now,” said Hayes. “And that speaks volumes, because they already know what the expectations are.”
The Wildcats (12-0) are worthy favorites. They scored at least 40 points in each of their first 10 games and only punted nine times in the regular season. The team’s defense is fast and punchy, led by Wake Forest-bound edge rusher Shamar McCollum. Wade Hampton’s 13 points in last weekend’s Lower State championship game was only the third time a team scored more than once on the Wildcat stoppers. Dillon started the season at No. 1 in 3A, and the expectation is to finish in the same spot.
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Chester (14-0) has no such pressure.
The Cyclones have just 12 winning seasons since 1972, six of those coming during coach Victor Floyd’s two stints at the school. They haven’t won a state championship since South Carolina schools were desegregated, losing in the finals in 2007 and 2008.
Being the underdog is nothing new for Floyd’s team, which has heard all season that its schedule was easy.
“I like it,” said Chester’s leading rusher, senior Pha’Leak Brown. “Every time we have a big game we’re always the underdogs, so it doesn’t make a difference now.”
It’s another area where the Cyclones embody their coach. Floyd grew up in the Green Sea-Floyds area of South Carolina, an overlooked rural farming area where many people naturally feel like underdogs.
“I love it, I love it,” said Floyd. “That’s been pretty much the case just about my whole athletic career.”
Chester, whether the town or its football program, has some of that same vibe.
Even after the Cyclones smacked Southside in the third round of the playoffs, forcing six turnovers in a lopsided win, they immediately returned to underdog status for the Upper State championship, in most people’s eyes. They hit the road the next week to face Union County, which had three losses to Gaffney, Chapman and Greer, which were supposed to show just how much the Yellow Jackets had been challenged.
But it was Chester that made the decisive fourth quarter plays to win on the road and advance to the school’s third state finals appearance in the state’s modern high school football area. If the unbeaten Cyclones are underdogs, they shouldn’t be huge ones.
“No matter who we beat or the situation, there’s always something. It’s never just ‘give those guys some credit,’” said Floyd.
That’s been the case again this week. Big chunks of Monday’s press conference at South Carolina High School League headquarters were spent asking Hayes and his players about Dillon’s run of state championship appearances, what they might do to win another one.
“So I heard,” said Brown, “but they made it just like we made it. That’s what a championship is, to see who is the best team. I’m excited to play them. All year we’ve been disrespected, people saying we don’t play good teams. Well, we finally get a good team so we’ll see what we can do.”