The Keenan Raiders know about the importance of a strong finish.
Throughout their 10-3 run this season, coach Quin McCollum’s Raiders have had big second-half performances, and they have been indomitable in the postseason.
Their run to reach Friday’s Class 2A Division II championship game, against undefeated Timberland at River Bluff, started with a fourth-quarter rally and defensive stand against Central in the first round. The Raiders played a complete game on the road to topple Chesnee, outscoring the Eagles 33-14 in the second half.
“We’ve been able to play some very good football the last three weeks, and we were able to take advantage of some opportunities that other people were not able to do,” McCollum said. He said the Raiders’ regular-season opponents prepared them to make this final drive.
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“We were thinking that we needed to ready ourselves for a playoff run, and we put together a tough schedule. We were just hoping to be able to get out of there and learn something,” he said. And they did.
Their first loss, against 4A’s Westwood in Week 4, was a reality check. Region losses to Newberry, which is playing for the 2A Division I title, and Fairfield Central, which reached the Upper State final, taught the Raiders how to close games.
Keenan has improved steadily through the season, breaking into the rankings late in the season, but keeping the underdog tag each week.
“It’s just a role, at the end of the day,” junior Tyreick Davis-Newton said. “When we take on that role, we like it, we’re flying under the radar. You’re not what everybody thinks you are, and then when you prove everybody wrong, it’s beautiful.”
Timberland coach Art Craig said Keenan’s steady improvement makes it hard to know what the Wolves should expect to face in the title game.
“They’ve gotten so much better from Week 1 of the playoffs to now,” Craig said.
“You watch in Week 1 and go, OK, we might have a chance. Week 2, you go, uh-oh, and then you look at week 3 and you go, what the heck are we gonna do?”
“I hope they don’t get much better this week,” Craig said.
The Raiders thirst for improvement, and prepare for it diligently. All season, their goal has been to be playing at Thanksgiving, and McCollum said the desire to be better than last week’s version of themselves is what has driven the Raiders this far.
“When you’re playing this long into the season, it does become not just a physical thing but a mental wear and tear. But as long as we stay focused and committed to our process, we’ll be just fine,” McCollum said.
The Raiders have added motivation now, as they are the first Keenan team to reach a state title game.
“Our guys are relishing the opportunity of trying to finish strong, they want to make history at Keenan, and this is one of the things that we intend to do,” McCollum said.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Kendrick Gathers said. “We’re happy to be on the field, especially with a team of their caliber, and we expect a good game Friday night.”
If their pattern continues, it might be their best game yet.