Friday night’s high school football season opener at District Three Stadium will be the most hyped in the city since 2010.
The clashing parties in both contests: South Pointe and Northwestern. Each side enters this season a defending state champion, littered with future college football players and gnashing its teeth to get after a crosstown rival. It’s the two teams’ first season opening meeting since the 2010 game played on ESPN.
“It’s exciting for the city,” said Northwestern coach David Pierce. “It’s always tough to prepare for because Week Zero, you started July 29, so getting your kids in shape and game mode so quickly is a little bit of a challenge.”
The matchup is one of MaxPreps’ 10 best games nationwide this weekend and could be a classic. The last two between South Pointe and Northwestern were decided by unsuccessful two-point conversion attempts in overtime, both results falling the Trojans’ way. The game looks like a coin flip on the surface; here’s six reasons why each side could grab bragging rights for the coming season:
6 reasons South Pointe will win
▪ South Pointe has won nine consecutive season openers since losing its first varsity football game in 2006 to Irmo. Granted, this Northwestern team will probably be the Stallions’ best ever first game opponent, but South Pointe rarely drops the first game of the season.
▪ “DK.” Derion Kendrick caught three passes in last season’s game against Northwestern, and all three went for touchdowns. The junior quarterback is a dynamic playmaker, unmatched locally in the open field and is poised to take his place as one of the best athletes in the state. If Kendrick can move the Stallions downfield through the air, there will be running room left in the wake that he can exploit.
3 South Pointe hasn’t lost more than three games in a row to any school other than Northwestern. Besides the Trojans, only Clover and York – out of 47 schools played – have beaten South Pointe more than twice.
▪ The Stallions might have an advantage at kicker where junior B.T. Potter is developing into a college prospect with some thump in his right peg. Herron said Potter’s development – he was named kicking MVP at the Top Gun camp earlier this summer in Rock Hill – will impact his thinking on field goals this season. With protection and snap figured in, Herron thought Potter was a good bet from 35 yards, but he has the leg strength to kick from much farther.
▪ South Pointe has a bunch of talented kids who haven’t played much, if any, varsity football before. Receivers/defensive backs Scott Robinson and Jamari Currence and linebackers Cort Neely and B.J. Davis are four that Herron mentioned who could emerge from this contest with much more awareness from the public. Players hungry to prove they belong on the D3 field on Friday nights can alter ballgames.
“There’s some guys that we’re really expecting to step up and play well,” Herron said Thursday during a lightning delay at his team’s practice. “One of those guys could be that guy that you’re talking about, to really help us.”
▪ South Pointe always plays better with a chip on its collective shoulder. Just ask Seneca in the third round of the 3A state playoffs last season. Losing two straight to Northwestern in gut-wrenching fashion means the Stallions will be turned up to 100, which should be a positive for them. They always seem to straddle the line between getting flagged and playing with a screw loose.
“They do have a little added motivation,” said Herron. “I hear them talk about it more than last year or even the year before.”
▪ The Stallions will go for two, again.
6 reasons Northwestern will win
▪ Northwestern has too much big-game experience back on offense. Even with a new play-caller atop the press box, it should be business as usual for Gage Moloney, Jerry Howard, Jordan Starkes and Jamario Holley, who will know how to manage the emotions of such a hyped-up contest.
“The younger kids, the kids in their first start, their eyes are gonna be like saucers,” said Pierce. “Some of those older guys are gonna have to go put their arms around them and say ‘calm down, just play the game.’ We never talk about the pressure of ‘you’ve got to win this game,’ because I think that crushes 16-year olds.”
▪ Speaking of those guys, Northwestern’s offensive balance is another factor that could push the Trojans to a fourth win in a row over South Pointe. If Jason Winstead’s defense crowds the box to defend Howard and Moloney’s running abilities, it leaves Holley, Starkes and others single-guarded on the flanks; the same, vice versa, is true. This was the conundrum that the Trojans’ scoring juggernaut presented every Friday night last season.
▪ Northwestern is extremely ruthless playing at home, District Three Stadium, an interesting fact given that the venue isn’t on the school’s campus. Whatever happens in the short bus ride down Main Street is magic, because the Trojans haven’t lost at D3 in 15 games, dating back to the Byrnes home opener in 2014.
24 In the last three years, Northwestern has won 24 out of its 25 games at District Three Stadium.
▪ Friday night will be Pierce’s first game as a head coach, but his experience negates any potential disadvantage for Northwestern. Pierce arrived at Northwestern in 1987, not long after Strait Herron graduated from the school. He’s seen it all in Rock Hill high school football over the last 30 years, and while Herron is vastly experienced as well, Pierce’s personality should help his team maintain a calm edge.
▪ Northwestern added Wally Wilmore to its football roster this week after he enrolled at the school and had his residency confirmed by athletics director Lauren West and the South Carolina High School League. Pierce said that Wilmore would not have been on the Trojans’ practice field if those things hadn’t already happened. He wasn’t sure how much Wilmore would play Friday – he’s still learning the offense – but expects him to contribute this season at receiver.
“We believe kids come here because it’s a great school,” said Pierce. “Can’t stop momma from knocking on the door and saying ‘can my kid come to school here?’ Every year we have kids transfer because parents move.”
▪ The Stallions will go for two, again.
Northwestern won’t field a JV team this fall
In a move that surprised many, Northwestern won’t field a junior-varsity team. The Trojans will have a ninth grade team but potential JV kids in 10th grade will be bumped up to a varsity team that will have more than 80 players. Trojans coach David Pierce said the JV group had plenty of bodies but not in every position.
“We realize the perception is that we have enough players. In reality we don’t have enough at all 22 positions to safely field a JV team,” Pierce said in a letter sent to parents.
The South Carolina High School League’s eight-quarter rule was changed last year, limiting any high school football player to only four quarters of game action. That move – spurred by player safety concerns from the National Federation of High Schools – required coaches to put their bubble kids (good JV players maybe not quite ready for varsity) on one team or the other.
Pierce said the decision will be reassessed on a yearly basis.
“Football has a tremendous tradition in our community,” he said in the letter. “We support the NFHS and SCHSL efforts to make it safer for participants.”