Seems Like Old Times: Fourth Playoff Meeting for Fairfield, Dillon

Griffins running back Damien Bell (9) slips away from the Newberry defense during Friday’s Upper State title game.

It’s been a long haul, and Friday night’s overtime scare against sixth-seeded Newberry felt like the longest of them all, but at last the Fairfield Central Griffins have arrived. And now they move from one old rival in the Upper State to another in the championship bout – the Dillon High School Wildcats.

The Griffins have squared off against Dillon on three previous occasions in the playoffs between 1995 and 1997, all three in the quarter finals. In 1995, the Griffins’ last year at the 4A/Division 2 level, Fairfield Central prevailed 21-14. In 1996, on their way to their first of two consecutive 3A state titles, the Griffins toppled the ‘Cats 39-15. And in 1997, before the Griffins could complete their back-to-back run, they had to overcome Dillon once more, delivering a 38-0 hammering of the Wildcats.

While it has been a 15-year drought for Fairfield Central, Dillon has seen the title game as recently as 2010, when they arrived as two-time defending Class 2A champs to square off against Central Pageland, a team they had beaten twice in the previous two years in the finals. But in 2010 it was Central Pageland snatching the crown, beating Dillon 20-13. In 2009, Dillon had come out on top in the squeaker, 21-20, while 2008 saw Dillon prevail in a defensive struggle, 7-6.

Overall, the Wildcats are 2-4 in state title games, but in football, history means little. The only thing that matters is the game under way.

Dillon, a 2-seed out of Region VIII in the Lower State bracket, took Timberland to the woodshed in last week’s semis, bouncing the top-seeded team out of the hunt 48-13.

“They’ve got six or seven Division I jokers running around out there,” Griffin head coach Demetrius Davis said. “They’ve got a doggone good football team.”

Similar in size to Newberry, the ‘Cats have a pair of solid offensive lineman – Bryce King and Ty Davis – committed to the University of South Carolina making holes for running back Jabo Lee, last year’s 2A Player of the Year and an East Carolina commitment. The Wildcats have used a running spread, similar in scheme to the Griffins themselves, to run up a 12-1 record. The only Dillon loss on the year was a 16-7 road defeat at the hands of 3A Marlboro County on Sept. 21. In their run to the title game, the Wildcats have amassed 491 total points – 37.7 per game – while their defense has given up only 8.2 per game.

“They’ve got Joe Blue at linebacker,” Davis said. “He’s a big, strong guy who causes a lot of havoc back there.”

Although the Wildcats started the year with a senior quarterback, injuries forced them to go with a freshman during their playoff run. Their senior may be healthy, but Dillon is likely to stick with the hot hand in today’s championship duel.

The Griffins, meanwhile, have a lot of hot hands. Senior running back Damien Bell and his junior counterpart Larry G. Bell have carved up defenses all season long, including through the playoff gauntlet. Junior quarterback DeAndre Belton has also devoured yardage against some rather stingy defenses, and last week, when Newberry shut down the run in the first half, Belton took to the air, throwing for 260 yards.

The Griffins began the season with a bruising schedule, their only losses coming to a pair of teams who are also, this weekend, playing for their respective state titles – Abbeville (2A/Division 2) and Union County (3A). In spite of the two marks against them, the Griffins have racked up 493 total points – 37.9 per game – while giving up 166, or 12.7 per game.

“Our schedule might be the most important ingredient to why we’re able to play Friday,” Davis said. “And Dillon is very similar in size and strength and scheme to what Union does, although they don’t throw the ball as much.”

For a host of Griffin seniors, Friday will mark the end of their career in the black and gold, win or lose. For Damien Bell, Mitchell Crosby, Raheim McDaniel, Antonio Lewis, Dexter Finch and many others, tonight’s game is the end of one long journey and the beginning of another.

“For the seniors, this means a lot,” Davis said. “Because of them, we’re here. They’re the foundation.”

But the foundation of the Griffins has many levels, and Davis counts his blessings when he looks down his roster and sees all the names that don’t have “senior” written next to them.

“We’ve got, maybe, eight guys on offense who are coming back,” Davis said, “and six or seven on defense. We’re trying to build something here.”

That construction really began to come together, Davis said, when he took his team into the wild last summer. At Camp Bob Hardin in Saluda, N.C., Davis said his Griffins learned to be more than just a football team.

“We gelled as a family,” he said. “Out there in the wilderness, we stayed in huts with no electricity, no lights, no distractions. It was a tough environment.”

Being out of contact with civilization for days, Davis said, was the best thing his team did all year.

Tonight, we’ll see if their labors bear fruit.