COLUMBIA, S.C. — Here they are again, those familiar foes, ready to decide a state championship.
It’s their third meeting for a crown in four years, so pleasantries are in order.
Dillon? Meet Chapman. Chapman? Meet Dillon.
On one side is Chapman, a program at the top of its game with one state title won in 2016 — a thriller against none other than Dillon.
And on the other side is Dillon, a program at its prime for quite some time. Saturday’s 3 p.m. SCHSL Class 3A state championship contest at Williams-Brice Stadium will mark the Wildcats’ eighth consecutive finals appearance in 3A or 2A, Division I.
This will even be the Wildcats’ 11th state championship game appearance in the past 12 years.
For Dillon coach Jackie Hayes, owner of seven state championship rings since 2008, this is arguably his best job taking a young, resilient squad back to the cusp of a championship.
“I have a lot of respect for these guys on this team,” said Hayes, whose team is 12-1. “You’re talking about getting everything out of a team, and I think we’ve done that this year.”
How so? Dillon won its past three playoff games on the road — each by seven points.
“I think our coaches have probably done one of their best jobs in a long time,” Hayes said. “What separates this team is they find a way to get it done in the end.”
Chapman (14-0), meanwhile, has been a wrecking crew with an average margin of victory by 41.5 points.
“A long, time ago, God created the earth,” Panthers coach Mark Hodge said. “And not too long ago, about 17 or 18 years ago, He created these young men. There’s nothing that I did. It’s just that they are phenomenal young men with great athletic ability but are even greater people. They’ve just bought into what we‘ve asked them to do.”
As it turns out, both teams have their share of playmakers. Morning News Preseason Football Player of the Year Jay Lester, as Dillon’s quarterback, has thrown for 2,289 yards and 23 touchdowns. Receiver Ahmari Huggins-Bruce, meanwhile, has 1,054 yards and 11 touchdowns. And a bevy of backs lead the Dillon rushing attack. Nemo Squire has 834 yards and 14 touchdowns, followed by Nigel George (662, nine) and none other than Lester (503, 13).
But that’s not all that concerns Hodge, whose team lost handily to Dillon in the 2017 finals rematch.
“First of all, it’s this gentleman right here,” Hodge said, pointing at Hayes during Monday’s news conference. “The experience he has in getting kids to believe is second to none. They are very well coached, solid offensively, and that can give us fits with their formation shifts.”
But the potential for offensive fireworks also exists at Chapman behind quarterback Mikele Colasurdo, a Georgia State commit. This season, all he has done is pass for 2,855 yards and 35 touchdowns. And among his receivers is Ben Rollins, who has 1,030 yards and 13 touchdowns. Dante Smith, meanwhile, has rushed for 1,806 yards and 29 TDs. And teammate Brandon Jones has rushed for 925 and 13.
That can be daunting for an opposing coach to look at. After Hayes was asked what concerns him the most about playing Chapman, he had quite the answer.
“Let’s see, do you have the rest of the afternoon?” Hayes quipped. “(Chapman) is a very talented football team on both sides of the ball. Their defense has gone unnoticed. They’re probably the best defensive team we’ve played all year long. We’re not going to stop them; we’ve got to control them. That will be our main thing.”
Of course, Dillon can also play sound defense with Shrine Bowl linebacker Ty’Quan King, who has 106 tackles (70 solo) with three sacks, two caused fumbles and scored on interception and fumble returns. But fellow linebacker Travon Johnson leads the team with 111 tackles (70 solo) with 1.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries.
And as a team, the Wildcats have intercepted 16 passes with Daizion Alford leading the way with seven.
Now, back to the friendly foes theme.
Since these two teams are playing each other for a state crown for the third time in four years, that qualifies as a rivalry, right?
“If we’re playing Chapman in the last game every year, that means we’ll be back here,” Hayes said. “We’ve got a good relationship with Chapman and respect their program tremendously. They’ve done an outstanding job, and it’s just a privilege to be able to play them Saturday.”