DUNCAN - In this small Southern town, close to a couple of truck stops on Interstate 85 and halfway between Spartanburg and Greenville, you will find what just might be the best high school football team in America.
Byrnes High has won six S.C. 4A Division I or II championships the past seven years. With a $328,000 scoreboard that shows video replays, a weight room envied by most small colleges and a roster loaded with major-college recruits, Byrnes is the sort of Friday-night football colossus most would think should be located in Texas or Florida.
But Byrnes is in Duncan, where the population of 3,000 swells to 12,000 for home games under the lights at Nixon Field.
Tonight, Byrnes - ranked No. 2 in USA Today's Super 25 national high school ranking - will travel to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to face St. Thomas Aquinas, currently No. 1 in the country in USA Today's rankings and the defending mythical national champion.
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The 8 p.m. game will be televised by ESPNU and is arguably the biggest football game that has ever involved a high school team from South Carolina.
So what makes this Byrnes team so special?
Yes, Byrnes boasts the most highly recruited running back in the country in Marcus Lattimore (who has North Carolina and South Carolina on the list of colleges he might attend in 2010).
But Byrnes also ingeniously indoctrinates into its system local football players from as young as the first grade by having them run the same pass-happy offense the high school team does. It has a 500-member booster organization called the Rebel Touchdown Club - they were the ones who raised the money to pay for that dazzling scoreboard - and a group of players' moms who wear blue wigs to playoff games and form the "Blue Hair Society."
Byrnes (enrollment 2,200 - drawing from several other small, surrounding towns, the eighth-largest high school in the state) also benefits from its location in a fast-growing area and a football-first region. The people of Duncan "pretty much treat us players like we're heroes or something," the soft-spoken Lattimore said.
"It's not just one thing," said Bobby Bentley. Bentley was Byrnes' coach during 1995-2006. Now, after a two-year stint as coach at Presbyterian College, Bentley has returned to serve as the coordinator of the team's inventive offense and also to coach his stepson, senior quarterback Chas Dodd.
"You know that drawer by your phone that has all sorts of stuff in it?" Bentley continued. "We're like that at Byrnes. We're an eclectic mix."
Eclectic is a good word for Byrnes. Other words fit, too.
"I'd say consistent and relentless," growled Michael Srock, who has a tattoo that commemorates Byrnes' nine state titles.
Most high school teams have a guy like Srock and call him a strength coach. Byrnes bills Srock as their "speed and strength" coach. Byrnes players do many drills that wouldn't be out of place at an aerobics class.
"Speed is the basis of everything we do," Srock said.
Srock is cited by everyone as one of the keys to the Byrnes program. He has been there 12 years and has gotten a lot of questions as to why, year after year, Byrnes' players seem to fit his motto of "Too Fast" and "Too Strong" against every team they play.
"Everybody looks for the magic," Srock said. "The silver bullet. There is no silver bullet. It's because we work."
"The kids do get off for Christmas, Easter and one week at the end of July," Srock said. "That's it. We work out on Christmas Eve. We work out on New Year's Day. We work out on New Year's Eve. They don't need to be going to any New Year's parties - they're 16 years old!"
Srock gets to work in a palace by most high-school standards. The Byrnes weight room and athletic fieldhouse - which opened two years ago, cost close $3 million and was paid for as part of a large-scale, taxpayer-funded upgrade of the entire school - includes a 120-seat film room theater.
Atop one of the Byrnes weight-room doors is a placard with one of Srock's favorite sayings: "It's not what we do, it's how intensely we do it." Many Byrnes fans now wear that motto on T-shirts.
Srock supervised an aerobic workout of some seventh-graders as he talked. Those middle-schoolers already were heavily immersed into the football system - many had been learning the team's plays for six years.
That was Bentley's idea. When Bentley left to coach Presbyterian, new coach Chris Miller, who had been the defensive coordinator, kept it going.
Byrnes' most recent game was against Gaffney, one of its arch rivals. Gaffney is the reason the Rebels have only six state titles over the past seven years.
Thirty minutes before the game, despite a persistent drizzle, all 9,000 seats were full at Nixon Field.
But the school kept selling $6 general-admission tickets for late-arriving fans, who settled in to watch from the grass embankments.
At halftime, Byrnes led 46-0.
During the break, at Srock's command, the Byrnes players each downed one quarter of an apple, one quarter of a banana, exactly two Fig Newtons and a heavily salted sports drink.
"That gives them just what they need to take them through the rest of the game," Srock said.
By midway through the third quarter, when the Byrnes coaches sent all their substitutes into the game, the Rebels had a 60-0 lead. Lattimore had 160 yards and three touchdowns. Byrnes won 60-7 - the school's 57th consecutive home victory.
It was a typical result. The Rebels are 5-0 this season and have won those games by an average score of 61-8.
The game against St. Thomas Aquinas, of course, will be much closer than the one against Gaffney. The Fort Lauderdale school has a more illustrious history than Byrnes, having produced players such as Hall of Famer Michael Irvin and Wake Forest's late, great Brian Piccolo (subject of the movie "Brian's Song").
Byrnes has never had one of its players get more than a cup of coffee in the NFL. Few have starred in college, either. Former Byrnes quarterback Willy Korn was considered one of the top high school quarterbacks in 2006 but so far has languished as a backup at Clemson.
But the Byrnes program just keeps rolling. The Rebels of 2010 should be almost as good as those of 2009. Although Byrnes will graduate 38 seniors after this season and lose many stars, a number of others wait eagerly to take their place.