Finally all back together in their locker room in the bowels of Williams-Brice Stadium, the Chester Cyclones knelt and prayed. They said amen and their coach, Victor Floyd, began to speak to them.
“They said all year, we haven’t played anybody, we’re too small, not good enough... look at us now!”
Floyd threw his arms open and the Cyclones roared. They held off a furious comeback by Dillon Friday night, besting the Wildcats 34-28 to cap a 15-0 season and win the school’s first state title since schools were integrated in the 1970s.
The Cyclones jumped out to a 21-6 lead and held on late when the Wildcats cut the lead to six. Chester fumbled a punt snap and the Wildcats drove down to the Chester 9-yard line. But Cyclones defensive end Teddy Murphy hunted down Dillon QB Jay Lester and sacked him on fourth down to send the Chester sideline into emotional frenzy.
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“Just relieved, relieved,” said Floyd, finally smiling after a long season. “We made it real difficult down the stretch with some turnovers. Just relieved.”
Chester lost its two previous state championship appearances, 14-12 to Wilson in 2007 and 31-21 to Myrtle Beach in 2008. Dillon was playing in its seventh straight state title game, having won five of the previous six.
But the Cyclones looked like the experienced, savvy state championship-tested bunch in the first quarter. Pha’Leak Brown took a handoff on the opening play from scrimmage and raced 49 yards for a touchdown. Things got better for Chester before the quarter ended, Stan Mills stepping in front of a Lester pass and running 96 yards for another touchdown, and a 13-0 lead.
“The start was big and I stressed that all week,” said Floyd. “I worried about the bright lights.”
It was 21-6 at halftime and 34-12 with a couple minutes left in the third quarter when Brown punched in a 1-yard score, his third of the game. The party was beginning in the Chester stands, but there was too much time left and Dillon began to crawl back into the game. Dillon came back from a 21-point deficit to win the 2017 state title, and it looked like Jackie Hayes team might do it again. Justin Green got behind the Cyclone defense for a 62-yard TD, then Ahmari Bruce-Huggins scored on a 9-yard reverse to set up the knuckle-biting ending.
“I was shaking,” said Chester’s standout lineman, Wyatt Tunall. “It ain’t real yet, promise you.”
Chester handled the importance of the occasion early on. But the setting and game’s seriousness seemed to get to the Cyclones in the fourth quarter when their 34-12 lead gradually disappeared. Then Chester fumbled a punt snap with less than 1:32 to play in its own end and Dillon took over at the 24-yard line. The Wildcats couldn’t hit the end zone and faced fourth down with seconds left. Cyclone pass rush on the right side forced Lester to step up and when he did, Murphy mauled him, effectively ending the game.
“I went crazy, man,” Murphy said afterward as his teammates jumped on his shoulders, or tapped his head. “I ain’t never had a feeling like that.”
“Teddy beat him off the edge and he’s been doing that really all year,” said Cyclones defensive coordinator Tim Boyd. “Just great pursuit to the ball.”
“Coach told us first quarter it was gonna be up and down, and that was a down,” senior Dorrien Bagley said about the fumbled punt late. “We had to get back up.”
Defensive turnovers won the game for Chester. The Cyclones intercepted three passes and recovered a fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half, all of which helped to keep Dillon at bay. Good things happened when Chester’s defense attacked Dillon’s QB, Lester. All three interceptions came on plays where Lester was hit as, or after, he threw the ball.
“We knew that (Lester) was really talented, really quick. We knew we had to get hats to him and that was kind of our goal tonight,” Boyd said.
Murphy made the play of the game, but it wasn’t the only time Dillon felt the junior’s presence in its backfield. He finished with eight tackles and three sacks. Javonti Jackson was just as good, but in the second level. He had a team-high nine tackles and intercepted two passes.
“Told the team, ‘they throw it my way it’s gonna be a pick,’” said Jackson. “I thank God for the opportunity he gave us to be out here playing at Williams-Brice. God showed me a way for an interception and I just did what I had to do.”
Brown was excellent for the Cyclones, rushing for 95 yards and three touchdowns.
Dillon;0;6;14;8 - 28
Chester;13;8;13;0 - 34
CHS -- Pha’Leak Brown 49 run (Henry Glenn kick), 11:46
CHS -- Stan Mills 96 interception return (kick failed), 3:46
DHS -- Nemo Squire 2 run (2-point run failed), 11:04
CHS -- Brown 5 run (Dunham pass to Ja’Rel Hill), 5:26
CHS -- Dorrien Bagley 20 pass from Dunham (Glenn kick), 7:44
DHS -- Jerdarius McDaniel 40 fumble return (2-point run failed), 4:49
CHS -- Brown 1 run (kick failed), 3:01
DHS -- Justin Green 62 pass from Jay Lester (Corrian Wright run), 1:11
DHS — Ahmari Huggins-Bruce 9 pass from Lester (2-point run), 1:59
RUSHING CHS: Pha’Leak Brown 25-95, Zan Dunham 9-29, Emmanuel Wright 8-21, Stan Mills 7-14, Jagen Hinton 1-(-12). DHS: Nemo Squire 16-63, Corrian Wright 2-33, Bobo McKinnon 1-14, Ahmari Huggins-Bruce 1-12, Tyquan King 1-4, Jay Lester 14-3.
PASSING CHS: Dunham 4-8-0; DHS: Lester 15-24-3, McKinnon 1-2-0.
RECEIVING CHS: Terrence Mills 1-53, Dorrien Bagley 1-24, Zion Mills 1-13, Brown 1-(-1). DHS: Wright 7-61, Huggins-Bruce 3-32, Squire 3-17, Justin Green 2-71, Bill McKoy 1-9.
RECORDS Chester 15-0; Dillon 12-1.