Even as crazy as it seemed, there was something that told Mark Clifford to dream big when he took the job coaching 8-man football at Beaufort Academy.
The Eagles had never played for a state championship — they had only had one winning season since the program’s launch in 2008 — but the program was moving in the right direction, and Clifford believed he was the guy to push it to the next level.
He had to.
“At this point in my career, new chapter, I just thought it would just be golden to come in there and play for a state championship or win a state championship,” the former Beaufort High School coach said. “Everything had to work out for it to happen, but I just kind of felt like it would.”
Then he coached his first game. The idiosyncrasies of the 8-man game left his head spinning after a 52-33 loss at Clarendon Hall. But from that beating he was able to glean more about how to coach this similar-yet-different brand of football, and his ground-pounding offense was a perfect fit.
Junior running back De’Shaun Epps started piling up ridiculous numbers behind an improving offensive line, quarterback Dawson Coleman learned to make better reads at the line of scrimmage, and relentless linebacker Edward McCormick anchored a salty defense. The points — and the wins — began to pile up.
The Eagles had won four straight when they traveled to Ehrhardt on Oct. 5 to take on Andrew Jackson Academy, which at the time had won 43 consecutive games. BA fell behind early en route to a 40-28 loss, but the Eagles went back to work the next week. They’ve won five straight since then, including a 40-30 victory at Jefferson Davis Academy last week, to earn another crack at the Confederates in the state championship game Friday night at Patrick Henry Academy in Estill.
It might sound crazy, but Clifford thinks they can snap AJA’s 48-game winning streak and deny the Confederates their fourth consecutive state title.
“If anybody is gonna beat them, it would have to be us,” he said.
BA’s offense, simple yet precise, is tough to stop, and Ja’Sean Lawson has recovered from an ankle injury to rejoin Epps in the backfield. McCormick is a monster on defense. And the Eagles are a different team than they were five weeks ago.
And, as Clifford points out, while the Confederates have won three straight state titles on the football field, many of BA’s players have won the last two on the soccer field, so they won’t be overwhelmed by the moment.
“These kids know,” he said. “They’ve been here before.”
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