Hard-working. Intelligent. Persistent.
Those adjectives describe the Chapin High football team.
First-year coach Scott Earley would love to add two more to the list: passionate and hungry.
Though Chapin won its first seven games, Earley had a feeling much more would be required of his team to sustain its success.
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"Most of it's been done on heart and willpower and adrenaline," Earley said of his team's fast start. "Those are all good things, but they only run so far."
For the Eagles to reach their potential, Earley believes, they will need more than the ability to remember the playbook, the willingness to heed coaches' instructions.
When their bones yearn for the jarring of another tackle and their palms itch to cradle the pigskin, when football is as essential to their well-being as breath and bread, then the Eagles will be able to push through the pain and frustration and loss to reach the next level of achievement.
Earley arrived at Chapin in May and has spent the past five months trying to instill in his players the intensity and desire he believes will transform the program into a powerhouse.
Earley has seen glimpses. So has the Chapin community, which more than once has packed Cecil Woolbright Stadium to capacity to cheer the Eagles during their best start since the mid-1970s.
As the Eagles prepared for their toughest game yet, with two-time Class 3A runner-up Chester coming to town, Earley expected the contest would be a proving ground for a team that already had exceeded almost everyone's expectations
A NEW SEASON
Though the similarities are few, it is hard for Earley not to compare Chapin to Myrtle Beach High. Especially because much of what he is expected to do here is to create a facsimile of his success on the Grand Strand.
Earley was 29 when he accepted the job at Myrtle Beach, his first head-coaching position. The Seahawks had performed poorly for several seasons, and Earley, then a baseball coach, had been reluctant to take the post. Townfolk poor-mouthed the team, and the task of turning the Seahawks into winners was daunting.
Young and enthusiastic, Earley put all he had into building the program. He spent his days getting to know his players during strength and conditioning sessions, and his evenings as a role model and motivator for at-risk youth, many of whom were on his team. He was among the lowest-paid coaches in the state, but he loved the job.
Earley led the Seahawks to the second round of the playoffs in his first season. He quickly built a solid program and a strong family with his Myrtle Beach team. In eight seasons, he compiled a 72-28 record, capped by the Class 3A state championship last season.
"Chapin is a new challenge, but we came here to see if we could do it again," Earley said.
And while the Eagles have a terrific record and have spent most of the season in the top 10 of the Class 3A poll, Earley reminds himself he is just getting started.
"I have to remember that this is year one at Chapin, not year nine at Myrtle Beach," he said.
A POSITIVE CHANGE
Friday mornings at Chapin are much the same as they were in Myrtle Beach.
Earley and his players, dressed in shirts and ties, meet off campus for an early breakfast. Then they head back to the school, where most attend the Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting. Most days, the Eagles then head to a local elementary school to read books to kindergartners.
"That whole routine is something we did at Myrtle Beach, and I just felt like it was good thing to do here also," Earley said.
Chapin principal Mike Satterfield is thrilled with the changes Earley has made.
"When you hire somebody like him, you hope that they bring a lot of enthusiasm and new ideas, and that's what he has done," Satterfield said. "I'm not terribly surprised that he's been successful or that he's had such an impact on our school."
Earley's ideas, including the on-field recognition of the previous week's top players at halftime and the Think Pink breast cancer fundraiser the Eagles will host Friday, have improved fan support and school spirit. Booster-club membership has doubled from last year.
"What coach Earley brought was a lot of enthusiasm, and it's just raised the excitement that Chapin could be really good at this sport," booster club president Wes Taylor said as he helped clear tables after the pregame meal at Vella's Sports Bar downtown.
Most importantly, though, Earley has effected change in his athletes.
"He's already raised the expectations and made them work harder than they have before," Taylor said. "The success we've had already is allowing the kids to believe in what he's doing because they are able to witness the payoff of that work. And that is why they will continue to do it."
Senior defensive lineman Tony Downs described his team's time with Earley as "intense."
Downs said the coach's focus on strength and conditioning has whipped the Eagles into "the best shape of our lives." That kind of preparation led to newfound confidence, he said.
"Last year, we were afraid, honestly," Downs said of preparing for the Chester game. "This year we know we can win."
A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
As the sun set and kickoff approached, the Eagles again gathered in the gymnasium. Assistant coach and unofficial team chaplain Jody Flowers entered wearing his pastoral robes and stood behind a plain, pine casket. A T-shirt draped across the front read "R.I.P. Chester."
Contrary to what many had predicted, the Chester game would not be Chapin's funeral, Flowers told them.
Excited by Flowers' message, Earley told his players, "If you guys go out there and handle business, we can burn this thing up and we'll party like it's 1999."
Earley then showed the Eagles a highlight reel of Chester getting beaten in the 2008 state championship game.
Finally, before he led his players onto the field for warm-ups, Earley implored them to have fun, to loosen up, to play with abandon.
"Win or lose, I want you to go out there and have the best night of your life tonight," he said.
The Eagles responded much the way their coach had hoped they would. The underdogs took the field fired up and held on to that fire as they fell behind early. They were jubilant when they took the lead in the second half and fought fiercely to stay in the game the rest of the way.
Their intensity was exceeded only by Earley's sideline acrobatics, as he jumped, ran, screamed and mimed directions onto the field.
When it was over, Chapin had suffered its first loss, 34-14, of the season. Earley felt some satisfaction, though.
Back in the gym, he told the Eagles to learn from the loss. He said the failure would become a tool to use as they built the program. Then he told them how they had succeeded.
"Seven wins, and I had the most fun tonight, because you all really played. You weren't afraid, and you really gave it all you had and enjoyed the game," Earley said.
That might not be enough to turn them into champions yet, but it's not a bad start.