And then there were four.
The ranks of the Lowcountry high school football teams still in the hunt for a state title shrunk considerably Friday, as five of the nine local teams who made the playoffs bowed out in the first round, and it could have been worse. Three of the four local winners prevailed by six points or fewer – and the six-point margin was in overtime.
Let’s reflect on the first round that was with Five Things I Think I Know:
1. Thomas Heyward and Whale Branch got their wake-up calls. One of the knocks on South Carolina’s playoff system is that it allows too many teams into the playoffs, resulting in lopsided first-round matchups. Indeed, it’s rare for a region champion to be challenged in the opening round by fourth-place – or in some cases, fifth-place – teams. Yet the Rebels and Warriors both found themselves in deep trouble Friday before rallying for hard-fought victories. Now we’ll find out whether they were simply overlooking those first-round foes or overmatched by the rest of the state. They won’t get away with subpar efforts from here on out.
2. You have to have a go-to guy. When it comes down to crunch time, and you have to make a play with the game on the line, you have to have a dude. Bluffton has one in Jermaine Patterson, who made a huge catch to convert one fourth-down and another fourth-down grab for a game-winning 11-yard TD late in the Bobcats’ 22-21 win over Hanahan. Thomas Heyward has one in quarterback Logan Thomas, who scored the game-winning TD in overtime for a 20-14 win over Christian Academy of Myrtle Beach. Beaufort Academy has one in De’Shaun Epps, who puts up eye-popping numbers every week. And Whale Branch has one in Irvin Mulligan, whose powerful legs brought the Warriors back from a 21-3 deficit in a 30-27 win over Buford.
3. And it helps to have a kicker. Three of the four area teams who won Friday had a successful field goal attempt, and two of them were critical to the victories. A high school kicker is a luxury – a valuable asset who can turn turnovers on downs into critical points or convert heartbreak into jubilation (and vice versa). Bluffton’s Evan Hayes, a hero in the Bobcats’ overtime win over Hilton Head High earlier this season, booted a big field goal Friday, and Whale Branch’s Jhonatan Diaz kicked three field goals including the game-winner. Clutch.
4. Wins aren’t the only measure of progress. In some cases, it is easy to show evidence a program is headed in the right direction – like John Paul II’s leap from 0-10 a year ago to 6-5 this season or Battery Creek’s growth from two wins to four (and it would have been five had the Dolphins not lost a game against Charleston Math & Science to Hurricane Irma). In other cases, it’s not so clear-cut. May River won the same number of games this season as last – two – but the Sharks were light years better in 2017. After being outscored 507-75 in their 2-9 inaugural season, the Sharks were outscored by a total of 14 points across 10 games this year, including a 12-10 loss to top-seeded Timberland in the first round of the playoffs.
5. The Friday night lights could very well go out in the Lowcountry by this time next week. If I were setting odds for Friday’s playoff matchups, I would say Bluffton and Beaufort Academy are heavy underdogs against undefeated opponents and Whale Branch and Thomas Heyward are both in toss-up games after surviving serious scares in the first round. Hopefully at least one team will carry the Lowcountry torch on to the third round, but be prepared for the possibility that this is the end of the road.