To say that coach Phil Strickland was a “good-get” for the Newberry Bulldogs would be an understatement.
When Sam Baird retired five seasons ago, Strickland arrived at Newberry with five state titles and eight championship game appearances under his belt, and instant clout.
Middle linebacker Khalil Sheppard said the Bulldogs take Strickland’s instruction as football gospel.
“With all the rings he brought in from other schools, we know he knows what he’s talking about,” Sheppard said. “We just have to listen to him, trust what he says, and do what we’ve got to do.”
Newberry is the third program Strickland has guided to the finals as a head coach, the second in Class 2A.
At Batesburg-Leesville, Strickland’s Panthers appeared in five Class 2A championship games between 1992 and 2002, and won in 1995 and 1999. In 2003, his first season at Gaffney, Strickland led the Indians to a Class 4A Div. 1 title.
The Indians won back-to-back titles in 2005-06 to cover Strickland’s hand in championship rings.
With those credentials, his players believed from the beginning that Strickland could help them reach, and win, a state championship game. On Friday, the Bulldogs take on two-time defending champion Dillon Wildcats in the Class 2A Div. 1 title game at River Bluff.
“We knew that this is where we were trying to be, and coach told us that it’s going to be very exciting,” Sheppard said, “but we have to play it like it’s just like another game.
“We have to do what he’s been coaching us to do, not change anything because it’s the championship game.”
But Strickland said the Bulldogs’ title hopes are not pinned to Strickland’s past successes. Newberry’s ability to play together, to balance both sides of the ball, has been key to their 11-2 record.
Strickland pointed to outstanding play from the Bulldogs’ offensive line — Ben Blackmon, Jashaad Perry, DJ Reid, Lorenzo Goodwin and Mac Vaughn — allowing room for running back Omar Sims and quarterback Yafari Werts.
“(Yafari’s) is a gifted athlete; he’s starting to understand the game better,” Strickland said. “Only thing is, we don’t have many receivers for him to go to.
“We would like to spread the field out a little bit more, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” said Strickland.
The Bulldogs are well-equipped for the running game, with Sims a bulldozer of a fullback, and the nimble Sheppard pitching in on the ground game as well.
Against Dillon, Newberry will face substantial offensive and defensive challenges, but the Bulldogs believe they are in good hands with Strickland.