They’re doing their best to avoid getting ahead of themselves, but it’s obvious when talking to members of the Whale Branch football team that something special could blossom in Seabrook this fall.
With most of their top players back from last year’s region championship squad and a roster loaded with 10 juniors and 15 seniors, the Warriors have high hopes for 2018.
“I see that we have potential to be something we haven’t been in the past,” coach Jerry Hatcher said. “I’m not going to look that far ahead because the wheels could come off, but athletically and physically, this is the best group I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
They felt equally confident going into last season before starting with four straight losses to fellow Beaufort County schools from larger classifications – Battery Creek, Beaufort High, Bluffton, and Hilton Head High. The district lifted the rule that required the Warriors to play all those teams, so the early-season schedule is a bit more favorable, but they’ll make up for it during region play. Whale Branch will compete in a loaded Region 5-2A along with powerhouses Barnwell and Bamberg-Ehrhardt, as well as strong programs in Allendale-Fairfax and Woodland.
The Warriors figure to be battle-tested by the time they get to the postseason, but they feel they can compete in the stout new region. They have to replace two key offensive linemen but have tons of talent returning in the backfield, including Wofford commit Irvin Mulligan, who earned first-team All-Lowco honors after rushing for more than 1,400 yards and 23 TDs last season. Quarterback CJ Brown also is back, and the Warriors can plug in a number of other running backs to help carry the load.
“Irvin is Irvin, but what we have now is backs in the backfield with him who are very capable,” Hatcher said. “The people who complement Irvin are better than they were last year.”
The defense is a work in progress despite returning eight starters, Hatcher said, but there’s enough talent and experience back on that side of the ball to believe things will fall into place by the time region play starts Sept. 28. Until then, the Warriors will be focused on one opponent at a time and trying to build toward a deep postseason run.
“The goal is to get to Columbia, but we can’t talk about it too much,” senior Kyshon Hipp said. “Last year we talked about it too much and we fell off with that 0-4 start. This year we’re going to go out there and play. We’re not going to do so much talking.”
WHALE BRANCH WARRIORS FOOTBALL
Coach: Jerry Hatcher
Record at WBECHS: 37-31 (7th season)
2017 record: 6-5 overall, 5-0 region, lost in second round of Class 2A playoffs
Returning starters: 7 offense, 8 defense
Offensive scheme: Split-back
Defensive scheme: 4-2-5
Top returners: RB Irvin Mulligan, QB CJ Brown, C Aaron Rhode, G Daquan Griswold, LB Jaheim Fripp, LB Kyshon
Hipp, CB Taqui Polite, CB Jaheem Hazel, WR Trevaughn Hipp, S Marion Smalls, DT Jaquan Fripp
Notable losses: T Anthony McVay, G Carus Epps, CB Jordon Reeves, RB Roscoe Fields
Breakout candidates: RB/WR Jadon Grant, OT Xavier Chaplin
PLAYER TO WATCH
Jaheem Hazel, RB/CB: Hazel is overshadowed by fellow Wofford commit Mulligan, but he’s an outstanding two-way player. A lock-down cornerback, he earned All-Lowco honors with nine pass break-ups and five interceptions last season, and he will line up at running back and quarterback at times to give the Warriors another offensive threat.
Can the Warriors stop the run? Whale Branch’s defense had a bend-but-don’t-break quality last season, but an opportunistic secondary was usually there to come up with a turnover in a big spot. The secondary should be strong again, but there are questions about whether the front seven is ready to stop power running games like they’ll face in the region.
REGION AND BEYOND
Not to belabor the point, but this is a brutal region. Bamberg-Ehrhardt and Barnwell played in the Lower State final last season and will likely begin the year ranked in the top five in the state. Even the third-place team from the region will be capable of doing some damage in the playoffs, and don’t be surprised if three teams from Region 5-2A are among the last four teams standing in the Lower State.
8/17 — vs. Battery Creek
8/24 — at Cross
8/31 — at May River
9/7 — vs. Ridgeland-Hardeeville
9/14 — Open
9/21 — at Philip Simmons
9/28 — vs. Woodland*
10/5 — at Barnwell*
10/12 — at Allendale-Fairfax*
10/19 — vs. Bamberg-Ehrhardt*
10/26 — at Battery Creek
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