The River Bluff football coaches and players heard the negative talk from the beginning. The Gators were starting a first-year varsity program at the Class 4A level, and the expectations outside of the locker room were minimal at best.
But those who mattered most believed from the beginning. The mindset didn’t change after a 46-point loss in the season opener. They believed even after they allowed 23 fourth-quarter points in a 14-point setback to Crescent in Week 5. They believed after a crushing, last-second one-point loss to rival Lexington in the second region game.
They righted the ship enough to finish 7-4 and earn a spot in the Class 4A Division II playoffs at top-seeded Goose Creek on Friday night.
“We’ve believed throughout the season that we were good enough to be where we are now and that we deserved to be in the playoffs,” River Bluff quarterback Brandon Tillmon said. “It doesn’t come as a surprise. At this point, it just makes us work that much harder to keep our season alive.”
David Bennett has been a successful college coach, with his most recent stop being at Coastal Carolina. He knows about building programs from the start. He was the first coach with the Chanticleers and coached them from 2001 to 2011. He took over the River Bluff program in it’s infancy and is as proud of this group of kids as any he has coached.
“It’s been neat to be a part of a program where we’ve done this from the ground up,” Bennett said. “We see the kids buying in and working hard. It’s like a dream come true that you get to be a part of something starting up at such a phenomenal school.”
Three of the four River Bluff losses came by a total of 18 points. That was enough to finish in a three-way tie for second place in the region with Lexington and North Augusta.
“Being able to win close games gives us some of that respect that we’re after,” Tillmon said. “A lot of people and teams believed that, after we lost some of those close games, that we were done. I think we did enough to prove otherwise.”
The turning point might have come after the Lexington loss. The players said it took the entire weekend to get over, but once they returned to the practice field on Monday it made them more focused and hungry. They rebounded the following week to beat a ranked North Augusta team.
“That next week, we really came out focused and, probably, had our most intense practices of the of the year,” defensive lineman Anthony Januchowski said. “We knew the playoffs were still a very real possibility and we came out and we did what we had to do. Beating North Augusta that next week gave us a jolt.”
If River Bluff is to continue to shock people, it will be on the arms and feet of Tillmon and a revamped defense that has gotten better each week.
The junior signal-caller has accounted for 20 touchdowns (13 rushing and 7 passing), rushing for 1,059 yards and throwing for 1,189.
The defense will be challenged to slow a triple-option attack that has propelled Goose Creek to a 10-1 record.
The first-round contest will match Bennett against Chuck Reedy. Bennett was a graduate assistant under Reedy at Clemson in the 1980s, and the two have a good relationship.
“We get to go play the No. 1 team in the state in Division II in Goose Greek,” Bennett said. “What makes that pretty neat is I was a grad assistant under Chuck Reedy at Clemson. He’s the teacher and I’m the student. I’m still learning, but look at the job that he’s done at Goose Creek. He was a coordinator at Clemson, coached at South Carolina, head coach at Baylor. That’s a blessing for those Goose Creek kids. We will go down and give it our best shot.”