As the leaves turn colors and Thanksgiving approaches, one thing for certain: Batesburg-Leesville will be winning playoff games.
Only three times since 1988 have the Panthers not won at least one postseason game - 1991, 1997 and 2004. Coach Courtney McInnis said the staff and players pride themselves on that tradition.
"It's about the kids and coaching staff wanting to improve each week," McInnis said as his 8-4 Panthers prepare to take on Abbeville (11-1) in the third round of the Class 2A playoffs Friday night. "We know the regular season is to prepare you for this time of year. If you do things the right way in August, September and October, that prepares you for the playoffs and hopefully give you a chance to advance."
The Panthers' past performance shows McInnis knows what he is talking about.
Never miss a local story.
In 2003, the Panthers entered the playoffs with a losing record as a No. 4 seed from their region and beat three region champions until falling to Central Pageland in the state championship.
In 2005, the Panthers - then a No. 2 seed again beat three consecutive region champions on the road, then knocked off No. 1 Cheraw for their sixth state championship.
"I guess you could say a tradition has been set here," McInnis said. "The kids know what to expect and know the routine year after year. We eat at the same places, do the same things and they grow accustomed to it."
The same formula could be playing out this year. The Panthers struggled with injuries and turnovers to finish the regular season 6-4 and in a three-way tie for second in Region 3-2A with Newberry and Mid-Carolina. They earned second place through a tiebreaker and opened the playoffs at home with a 60-13 thumping of Columbia.
Last Friday, K.J. Johnson scored on a 1-yard run with four seconds remaining for the 24-17 victory to win at top-ranked Woodruff, adding another road upset to their storied history.
"We are finally getting healthy and I think we're playing a little bit better because of that," McInnis said. "We lost (linebacker) Dametrius Robinson, (wide receiver) Antonio Butler and (two-way lineman) Jamie Gleaton to injuries early in the year and that has provided us with some depth now that they are back."
Another reason for the turnaround is the emergence of Johnson at quarterback. In two playoff games, he has 315 yards rushing and six touchdowns after finishing the regular season with 458 yards and five touchdowns.
"It's easy to forget about him with everything our other backs are capable of doing," McInnis said. "Fortunately he has been making good decisions on the read option and that has opened things up for him as well as the other guys. I don't know if that means we can win another week against a great team but I like the way we are doing things right now."