It takes an unparalleled level of talent, grit, and resilience to mold a championship football team. Bryce Lybrand’s Beaufort Eagles might just have them all.
Kacy Fields led a stellar ground game with three rushing touchdowns, and the Eagles overcame a shaky start on the road Friday to vanquish Dillon 30-21 and advance to the SCHSL 3A state championship game. Beaufort claimed its second consecutive Lower State title and became the first team to win at Dillon in the postseason since 2011, earning the right to face Powdersville for the Class 3A title at 7 p.m. Thursday at Benedict College in Columbia.
“They say big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, and our guys shined really bright tonight,” Lybrand said. “They don’t quit, they just keep fighting. Just really proud of the kids and the coaching staff, doing what we need to do to win the football game and get another chance to play for a state championship.”
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The Eagles absorbed the first blow of the night, as a strong Dillon offensive line paved the way for an opening 12-play drive. Beaufort looked to have the stop on a 4th-and-3 inside the 10, but a late flag gave the home side a first down before big Chris McCollum punched it in from three yards out for the early lead.
It continued to spiral early for the visitors, as a misplayed handoff on offense put the ball on the ground and back into the hands of the Wildcats. But a hungry Beaufort defense got it right back, forcing a three-and-out thanks to a holding call and a terrific defensive play from corner Dom Camacho.
It took just two plays on the Eagles’ second drive to find the end zone. Samari Bonds showed off his quickness on a 24-yard run, and senior stud Colton Phares broke free for a 36-yard touchdown to knot the Lower State final at 7. Beaufort’s stout run defense forced another punt as Fields, playing both ways, raced from the secondary to shut down Ty Martin.
Bonds and the Eagles struggled to find their groove offensively in the second quarter, but a hard-working Beaufort defense came up big again to force a turnover on downs in the red zone. After freshman quarterback Josiah Oxendine impressed with a deep pass on the run to Donnez Alford, the Eagle secondary held the Wildcats down amidst clouds of smoke on the field lingering from celebratory fireworks.
Fields delivered a nasty stiff arm as he brought the ball inside the Dillon 25 on the Eagles’ next drive, but Alford read a Bonds pass perfectly and picked it off to keep the game tied. Jack Sumner surged into the backfield to sack Oxendine near midfield, and Robert Johnson ended the ensuing Dillon drive with a stuff of Martin for a 1-yard loss to force a punt.
The Eagles were envisioning a potential two-for-one opportunity late in the first half, but the chance slipped away just one play later. Bonds was looking to set up a screen pass to Phares, but McCollum got a paw on the feed and reeled it in for a monster interception. McCollum finished off the drive himself on the ground, striding across the goal line from the 1 to give the Wildcats the halftime lead. Despite turning the ball over three times in the half, the Eagles were down by just a single score on the road.
Beaufort came out of halftime doing what it has done best, keeping the ball on the ground and letting its athletes go to work. The Eagles conjured up a clinical six-play drive to open the third quarter, using the speed of Fields, Phares, and Bonds to overwhelm Dillon’s defense before Fields burst through up the middle on fourth-and-2 for 22 yards and the game-tying score.
It was up to Beaufort’s ferocious defense to keep the momentum going, and Quion Rivers did just that. The unheralded junior linebacker burst into the backfield and pummeled Oxendine to force a punt. Beaufort went right back to work and kept riding the hot hand of Phares and Fields behind a dialed-in offensive line with a 28-yard burst from Colton before Kacy stormed in from two yards out for his second score of the night and Beaufort’s first lead at 21-14.
The Wildcats answered on their next possession, starting the drive in Beaufort territory after a long kickoff return and moving the ball forward with the quick legs of Martin before the senior cruised in for a game-tying 4-yard touchdown. The track meet was on as the end of the third quarter approached, and it was Beaufort’s turn to put up a response. The Fields and Phares show continued on the ground with a dash of junior back Caleb Ulmer thrown in to push the ball inside the Dillon 20.
With a third-and-13 looming, a gutsy trick play call turned into a massive break for the visitors. Lybrand pulled into his bag of tricks and called for Fields to throw to the end zone, and Alford snatched the ball away from McLeod Reichel for a pick. But as Alford tried to take the ball out of the end zone, an illegal block in the back call on Dillon resulted in a safety and gave the ball right back to Beaufort with a chance at a two-possession lead.
And the Eagles made the Wildcats pay.
Phares fought through a host of defenders for a first down on a 4th-and-4, and Fields broke off an 11-yard run before his teammates pushed him across the goal line from the 2 to give Beaufort a crucial two-possession advantage at 30-21 with under seven minutes to play. The Eagles’ high-flying defense took the field again with a chance to all but shut the door on Dillon and delivered the knockout blow on a fantastic one-two punch. Hart Cushman brought Oxendine down for a drive-opening sack, and Rivers picked him off on the very next play to send the Eagle faithful into a frenzy.
Dillon forced a fumble to get one last gasp at a late rally, and Oxendine completed a fourth-down pass to Alford inside the BHS 20, but Beaufort’s stellar secondary fittingly finished the job, as Carter Bowersox stormed in for a sack before Camacho locked down his man and picked off a pass to punch the Eagles’ ticket back to the state title game.
Phares and Fields were the catalysts on the ground, combining for a whopping 323 rushing yards. Fields shined with 160 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries, while Phares was ultra-efficient with 163 rushing yards and a score on just 12 attempts. Bonds added 85 yards on seven carries to strengthen a dominant Eagle ground game. Oxendine completed 9-of-19 passes for 162 yards and two interceptions, while Martin led Dillon’s rushing attack with 115 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
When Bryce Lybrand’s team gets knocked to the mat, his team answers the challenge and gets up even stronger. With their third straight comeback playoff win secured, the Eagles (12-1) will head back to Benedict College at 7 p.m. Thursday to battle Powdersville in search of the Lowco’s first SCHSL state championship since the former Walterboro High School’s title in 1997.
The task will be steep, but Lybrand’s squad has the confidence – and the heartbreak of the South Pointe defeat a year ago – to fuel them to a special evening in Columbia.
“Since we started this thing the goal was not to get back – but to win it,” Lybrand said. “If we walked on the field and people just looked, a lot of times they probably wouldn’t think it would be a team playing for a state championship. These guys just play so dang hard. Hopefully they give that same effort again next time.”
By Wes Kerr
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