In the culmination of more than a year of planning and preparation, the first Battle at the Bluff kicked off Thursday night at River Bluff High School.
As the sun set on a sweltering school night, football fans continued to trickle in for the event’s opening match. About 400 tickets were sold for the contest between Pelion and Cardinal Newman, originally slated as the Friday opener. The game was moved to Thursday because of an extreme heat warning for Friday.
But River Bluff athletics director David Bennett said enthusiasm for the Battle would grow as the three-day event continues through Saturday night.
“We didn’t really think about how many would come out to one game or another, we just put the matchups out here that we could,” Bennett said.
Fourteen months ago, Bennett was approached by a promoter who puts on a similar event along the Grand Strand.
“I figured we would just cut out the middle man and do it ourselves,” Bennett said.
So in the midst of getting the River Bluff athletics program off the ground, Bennett spent much of the program’s first year organizing this year’s high school football kickoff weekend event.
At first the idea was to have an interstate battle, with teams from Georgia taking on Palmetto squads. But the Georgia teams did not make their schedules early enough to guarantee participation.
With most of the teams from Lexington District 1 involved, the Battle at the Bluff took on a very local flavor.
“An event like this is so much about the community. We’re very proud of our venue and the experience that it affords, so to be able to provide that resource, that opportunity to many kids, many families, is a tremendous opportunity that we’re glad to have,” said River Bluff principal Luke Clamp.
The coaches of the 10 invited teams also appreciated the opportunity.
Pelion coach Ben Freeman said, “When I first heard about it, I felt like it was a great opportunity. I thought it was something that was really going to kickoff the season in a positive way and build some excitement.”
Greenwood coach Dan Pippin said, “It’s a tremendous opportunity for not only our school, but for the state, to have a showcase like this with talent from across the state.”
It is also a solid moneymaker.
“We haven’t gotten all the bills yet, so I don’t know the cost, but we look to have it all covered with our sponsorships,” Bennett said.
Founders Federal Credit Union is largely footing the bill for most of the costs, with Chick-fil-A and the Lexington FCA also sponsoring.
Bennett said it was not difficult to get the sponsors on board.
“Bruce Brumfield, who is the CEO of Founders Federal Credit Union, is all about the kids, so when I called him and said we needed sponsors, he said ‘Count us in.’”
“Founders Credit Union has been so good to our kids already, providing support already last year, and now for this event. It really says a lot about the community here,” said Clamp.
That sponsorship covers the officiating crews and the security, which means all the gate proceeds from the three-day event will be total profit, split evenly among the 10 participating programs.
“We think it’s going to be well-attended, even though the heat is going to keep some people away,” said Freeman, whose Panthers played in the event’s opener on Thursday.
“With some of these match-ups that we have, when you combine all these schools together, we should get a pretty good crowd.”
“There was no guaranteed amount in the contract, but it’s definitely a good deal for Pelion,” Freeman said.
The Gators’ home stadium, a one-year-old arena that rivals some small college facilities, can seat 5,000, and Bennett figures that the match between Greenwood and defending champion Dutch Fork should be the biggest draw of the event.
And according to Bennett, the Battle at the Bluff can become an annual success regardless of the exact figures.
“We’ll see what happens and how the teams enjoy it and see what we’re going to be doing when we get to ’16-17,” Bennett said.