Clash of the 2A Titans

Last year head coach Demetrius Davis and senior Griffin leaders Raheem McDaniel (7) and Damien Bell (9) had to settle for second-best. This year, their sights are set somewhat higher.

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COLUMBIA – You’ve seen them before. Four times, to be exact. They’re big, they’re fast, they’re strong. And last year, they won it all.

Yes, it’s those guys again: The Dillon High School Wildcats.

In 1995, the Griffins’ last year at the 4A/Division 2 level, Fairfield Central toppled Dillon in the playoffs 21-14. In 1996, on their way to their first of two consecutive 3A state titles, the Griffins thumped 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.

None of that, including last year’s 21-6 loss to Dillon in the title game, means anything tonight, of course, when this pair of 2A Titans hurl thunderbolts at one another at Benedict College’s Charlie W. Johnson Stadium in Columbia.

“We felt very fortunate to win last year, but we knew going into this season that Fairfield had a great shot at getting back,” Dillon head coach Jackie Hayes said at Monday morning’s press conference in Columbia. “We told our team the whole time, we’ve got to work hard and continue to get better; Fairfield will be waiting on us if we get an opportunity to be there.”

Dillon has certainly earned their way back to the title match, out-scoring their opponents 529-73 en route to an 11-2 record. Their only blemishes came in pre-region play, to a Mallard Creek team out of Charlotte, N.C. in the season opener, 27-21, and to Marlboro County on Sept. 27, 27-6. They then sailed through Region VIII, shutting out four of their five challengers, allowing only 6 against Mullins on Oct. 11. Their run through the Lower State bracket has been equally impressive. Earning a bye in round one, they then shut out Wade Hampton 56-0 and sent Lake Marion packing 59-6. Their closest trial came in last week’s semifinal when Timberland allowed the Mighty ‘Cats a mere 14 points. But the Dillon defense did the rest, keeping Timberland off the boards entirely.

Hayes said the Marlboro loss, a game in which sophomore sensation Avery McCall did not play at quarterback, was the pivotal moment in the season.

“I think that was a real good gut-check for us after the Marlboro County game,” Hayes said. “We don’t make excuses at Dillon, but Avery McCall was not playing. Our offense is designed for him. You’ve got to have a tremendous quarterback to play the scheme that we’re trying to run offensively. I think from the attitude standpoint, that was the changing point of the season.”

As a freshman, McCall got the call during last year’s playoff run and the cool-headed youngster expertly guided the Wildcats to the crown. In the final against the Griffins, McCall went 12 for 18 for 128 yards and three TDs while throwing no interceptions. This year, he has been even better, completing 90 of 151 passes for 1,268 yards and 15 TDs while tossing only three interceptions all year.

McCall’s performance last year, and the Dillon victory, has been on the mind of Griffins’ head coach Demetrius Davis for about 12 months now.

“I don’t know how ‘fortunate’ Jackie feels like it was to win (last year),” Davis said Monday. “We got beat up pretty good last year. I don’t think the score really reflects how badly they beat us up. They turned the ball over inside the 5 twice where they could have had some scores.

“After standing on the sidelines and watching Dillon celebrate,” Davis said, “I still have a vivid picture in my head of it, I think it was motivation for us to go and work a little harder and pay a little more attention to little details and do the little things right. We’re truly blessed to be able to have this opportunity to be back.”

“It hurt to see them get the victory,” Griffin defensive back Compton Walker said Monday. “It pushed us to work harder.”

Walker has been a play-maker for the Griffins this year, pulling down five interceptions (a number he shares with junior Shadarius Hopkins), returning a punt for a touchdown against Pelion to seal the Region III crown and setting the Upper State championship game in motion last week with a 42-yard return of the opening kickoff, which spurred Fairfield’s first score of the game. Davis knows that in games like tonight’s, play’s like Walker’s are invaluable.

“There are three things you’ve got to have in this kind of game,” Davis said. “You’ve got to pack your defense first. Before you leave the school, you better make sure you’ve got your defense packed. After you get done packing your defense, you better go back and see if you can pack your special teams. Make sure you pack your special teams before the bus leaves. The last thing you can load up is your offense. A lot of offensive guys don’t like to hear that, but if you can pack your defense and your special teams, and you get your offense out there to not lose the football game by not turning the ball over and putting your defense in bad situations, I think that’s the way you can win football games.”

So far, that philosophy has worked well for Davis, and the man piloting that offense, senior quarterback DeAndre Belton, has managed games to precision. Belton has completed 112 of his 191 throws this season, for 1,764 yards and 17 TDs. He does, however, have seven interceptions to his name. Dillon, meanwhile, has picked off 18 of their opponents’ passes this year, returning three for scores.

“Their quarterback is outstanding,” Hayes said of Belton. “Their offense goes as he goes. He reminds me a lot of (Sumter High School’s) Freddie Solomon, probably the greatest high school football player in the state of South Carolina, but these guys are too young to remember Freddie Solomon (who played his high school ball in the late 1960s and early 1970s). They probably think of more like a Cam Newton. They are explosive, offensively. Their quarterback does an outstanding job. Their offense is built around their quarterback just like ours is in Dillon.”

Belton, meanwhile, keeps it all in perspective.

“That feels great,” Belton said, “but my team helped me a whole lot to get to that point. They give me whole lot of confidence.”

Davis is hoping that soft-spoken confidence will translate into big yardage tonight against a very, very stingy Dillon defense. With eight shutouts to their credit, the Dillon defense gives up less than six points per game.

“It seems like (Hayes) just took (senior linebacker) Joe Blue on defense and copied and pasted him 10 times and all of them look the same and all of them are that good, they really are,” Davis said. “If you were to ask me right now, ‘How do you beat Dillon?’ I don’t know. I really don’t. But I’ve got four days to try to figure that out.”

That was Monday morning. Tonight, Griffin fans will learn if Davis found an answer.

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