Bryce Lybrand had envisioned this moment since his early days at Beaufort High. A practice on Thanksgiving and a home playoff game the next day was a goal he set out on nearly four years ago. Now, he’s earned the right to live out that dream.
On Friday night, his Eagles will take the Lowco’s center stage on Lady’s Island as they battle West Florence for the 2021 SCHSL Class 4A Lower State football championship.
After vanquishing Myrtle Beach in a 20-19 thriller on the Grand Strand, the Eagles will look to bring the same energy back to their home field with a spot in the state title game on the line.
“It’s awfully nice to be at home,” Lybrand said. “We’re excited about the opportunity to play at home in front of these fans for the Lower State championship and try to do something for this community that’s supported us.”
But Lybrand and company will have to be in top form again to slay another Region 6-4A power on Friday night. After dropping a 33-13 game at Hartsville and falling 14-7 to Myrtle Beach a week later, Jody Jenerette’s Knights have rattled off six straight wins including a 31-21 avenging of the Red Foxes to advance to the final four.
West Florence has impressed with its strength, athleticism, and grit during this playoff run and boasts a powerful ground game led by running back Terry McKithen and quarterback Deuce Hudson.
“They’re very well coached,” Lybrand said. “Jody does a great job in the weight room and I think that’s where he builds that culture. They play really hard, they’re physical up front, they’re super athletic. They’ve got a lot of guys who can run on both sides of the ball, they have a running back and a quarterback who both can take the ball to the house if you’re not where you’re supposed to be, and they’ll try to stress you on some things with special teams.”
But the Knights’ strength on the ground will be matched by an impenetrable Beaufort High defensive front. The Eagles decimated a scorching-hot Myrtle Beach attack last Friday, forcing five punts and stuffing a pair of fourth-down conversions.
Senior Alvin Wilson and junior Eamon Smalls have been dominant against the run during the postseason and will look to stay disciplined and contain McKithen, who has dashed for 1,683 yards and a whopping 27 touchdowns in 12 games.
But it was Beaufort’s secondary that really impressed to send the Eagles to the Lower State title bout. Breakout corner Jalin Porter picked off a Ryan Burger pass, and Hunter Rast made seven tackles to slow down the Seahawks’ dangerous receiving corps. Hudson and the Knights offense rely on the ground game, so a stellar effort from Beaufort’s front seven including dynamic linebacker James Dennison will force Hudson to test a proven Eagle secondary.
“I think the statement that they made was that the rest of this season wasn’t a fluke,” Lybrand said of his defense. “They haven’t really allowed a whole lot, they allowed 10 points to North Augusta, they had seven straight three-and-outs against South Florence. They’ve been really good all year and phenomenal on third down. They’re confident, they’re playing as a group, they’re trusting each other, and it’s gonna take that Friday night to beat West Florence.”
Lybrand’s offense didn’t have to do much against Myrtle Beach thanks to a phenomenal defensive showing, but Tyler Haley came up clutch in the biggest moment, throwing a dart to junior wideout McLeod Reichel for the go-ahead score. Haley has proven himself when the stakes are at their highest, and he’ll need to make good reads and take care of the football against a West Florence defense that has surrendered 21 points or fewer in all three playoff games and forced four turnovers a week ago.
A solid performance from John Asher Howell and an improved offensive line can give time for Haley to scan the field and create some openings for powerful running back Amariee Morris. If the Eagles’ workhorse back can take advantage of some running room early, it should open up Beaufort’s potent passing attack led by the explosive Zyrin Odom, who has the height and athleticism to reel in passes downfield. If the Knights decide to take the senior receiver away, Haley can look for stellar tight end Michael Dennison or a quick and agile Kacy Fields, who caught nine passes for 72 yards at Myrtle Beach. And don’t forget about Reichel, who has been an ultra-reliable target underneath to move the ball and extend drives.
Beaufort High has been excellent on special teams down the stretch, and reliable kicker Joe Caprarola should be more than motivated to come through in the clutch after missing an extra point last week. The Eagles may not be playing on Friday if it wasn’t for Rast’s two massive punt returns, and the explosive senior will be one to watch when West Florence sends its unit out on fourth down.
It’s a clash between two up-and-coming South Carolina programs looking to cement their legacies. Jenerette’s team has shown its impressive resilience and will have some motivation after losing to Beaufort in last year’s opening round. But Lybrand and the Eagles have found their potential at the right time and will have the best crowd and atmosphere in the Lowco behind them on their home field Friday night.
If his “large humans” on the line contain a lightning-quick McKithen and Haley ignites his dynamic offensive attack, Beaufort should grab an early lead and look to ride a scorching-hot secondary to a spot in next Thursday’s state championship game.
Lybrand knew his Eagles were special after stunning Georgia powerhouse Benedictine back in September. Now, it’s a matter of staying true to their strengths, putting in the effort on every play, and feeding off their home crowd to earn a shot at the ultimate prize next week.
“I think we’ve had that [we can beat anyone] mentality for most of this year,” Lybrand said. “When we went through that Georgia gauntlet and came out 3-0, I think our guys looked around and said we’re the real deal. We’ve never really wavered from that. We’ve stumbled, lost two games, but they always came back on Monday focused and ready to fix the issues that we had. We’ve got to stay in the moment, not look ahead to anything, and be locked into thinking about a really good program in West Florence on Friday night.”
By Wes Kerr
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