For Aric Samuel, the circle became complete on March 3.
On that day at Colonial Life Arena, Samuel became the first Hartsville High boys basketball coach to lead the Red Foxes to a state championship, completing a journey that began in the early 1990s when he and the legendary Roderick “Moo Moo” Blakney became the most prolific scoring duo in program history while helping to elevate the long-suffering program to a much higher profile in the state hoops community.
“Man, we were something back in the day,” Samuel said. “When I was a senior and Moo Moo was a sophomore, we both averaged around 25 points a game. We never won the big one, but coach Evans Gilliard came in and got the program going in the right direction. That really was the start of Hartsville High (boys) basketball being part of the conversation at least.”
Samuel went on to play for four years at South Carolina State, as did Blakney. But in Orangeburg, their careers took different paths. Blakney averaged 22 points per game at S.C. State and is still a top professional player in Europe. He was inducted into the S.C. State Hall of Fame in 2010.
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Samuel, much to his surprise, went right into coaching out of college.
“After my senior season, Lewis Lineberger (then the athletics director and football coach at Hartsville) called and asked if I wanted to come back home to coach,” he said. “I was tempted, but decided that I was only 24 years old and probably wasn’t mature enough to handle coaching in my hometown.”
Instead, he was offered a job at Hunter-Kinard-Tyler, and was surprised to learn that is was for the head coaching position, not a gig as an assistant.
“That really took me by surprise, but I decided to give it a try,” he said. “That first season, we won 22 games, and I still don’t know how we did it.”
Samuel developed his style in the offseason between his first and second years in rural Neeses.
“We got by using a 3-2 zone and a 1-2-1-1 press, and a lot of hard work and enthusiastic play by a bunch of hungry kids,” Samuel said. “But I had to find something that would work over the long term.”
Samuel cast an eye toward two Orangeburg area powerhouses — Calhoun County and old Holly Hill-Roberts (now part of Lake Marion).
“It was all about pressure defense for both of those teams, but not necessarily pressing baseline to baseline the entire game,” Samuel said. “With pressure defense, you can overcome some negatives like a lack of size or poor shooting. The key to making it work is having the kids commit to it, embrace the concept.”
By his third season at the helm, H-K-T was ready to make the jump to elite status in Class A. The Trojans had a great four-year playoff run between 2002 and 2005 — featuring a loss to Raymond Felton and Latta in 2002 and beating Hemingway 100-89 in the big game in 2005.
Dr. Charlie Burry noticed and made it his quest to persuade Samuel to return home.
“I don’t know if Aric had his eye on coaching back home, but I had my eye on him,” said Burry, a Hartsville graduate and former boys basketball coach and football assistant.
“I was very impressed with the job he was doing at Hunter-Kinard-Tyler and, after meeting with him, I was convinced he was the man we needed to turn the boys basketball program around. Competing and winning state championships was nothing new at Hartsville. We’d been doing it in football, baseball, girls basketball and softball for years, but not in boys basketball.”
The challenge of hoisting a boys hoops state championship banner at his alma mater was too much for Samuel to resist, though it was not an easy decision to leave H-K-T.
“We had just won a state championship and had virtually everybody coming back, so we were set up for a long run,” he said. “But after talking with Dr. Burry and doing a lot of praying, I felt it was time for me to go home. Still, it was an emotional thing for me and the kids at H-K-T when I told them about my decision.”
Samuel took his second Hartsville team to the Class 4A Lower State championship game in 2007, only to fall to A.J. Green and Summerville at White Knoll. Then, the honeymoon was over. For the next three seasons, Hartsville could not build on the early success. Samuel said he started to feel the heat from some unhappy fans.
But Samuel had unwavering support from Burry and athletics director Phyllis Griggs, another Hartsville graduate.
“Aric is a great role model for our kids,” Griggs said. “We knew all along that if anybody was going to take the program to the next level it was Aric. He’s been a great addition to our athletic department since Day One.”
By the 2010-11 season, Samuel had his kind of team in place — a deep one that was sold on his defense-first concept. As the defensive pressure rose, so did the fast-break offense and, more important, wins. The Red Foxes went 14-9 and beat eventual state champion Darlington late in the Region 6-3A campaign. Hartsville was eliminated by Lower Richland in the second round of the state playoffs.
Expectations were high entering the 2011-12 season.
“I believed we had what we needed to make a run,” Samuel said. “We had the talent, the motivation and the work ethic. It was going to be a matter of how we performed. Every day at practice, I would point to the banners hanging up in the gym to remind everybody that there was one missing.”
With senior forward Tevin Prescott and junior guards Jaylen Shaw and Davontae Washington in the lead roles of an 11-player rotation, the Red Foxes had trouble only with county rival Darlington. A 70-45 loss to the defending state champs in the next-to-last regular season game cost Hartsville a share of the region championship, but the Red Foxes were not fazed by the lopsided loss.
“One thing this team showed all season was the ability to bounce back strong from a loss or a poor performance,” Samuel said. “I still don’t know how to describe that game, but I wasn’t worried that it would have a carry-over effect and destroy our season.”
Indeed, the Red Foxes closed the regular season with an 83-51 rout of Crestwood and went on a 5-0 run in the playoffs with an average winning margin of 16.7 points. The closest game was a 63-57 win against Wilson, a team they went 1-1 against during the regular season. Hartsville paid back Lower Richland with a 60-46 win in the Lower State final to rate its first state-title shot since 1952. The last piece of the puzzle was a 69-56 win against Southside in the championship game.
“There are a lot of good things going on at Hartsville High, academically and athletically,” Burry said. “Academics are what were are all about, but nothing seems to excite or bring together a community in a small town like ours quite as much as winning a state championship, especially one by a program that has never done it before.”
It was a perfect storm kind of season.
The Red Foxes delivered during their first full season in the school’s 2,200 arena seating-style gymnasium.
“We needed a new facility and we wanted a “wow” factor,” Griggs said. “That’s what we got and we had the team to go along with the facility. We filled the place a couple of times and the atmosphere was great. Of course, winning puts people in the seats, but many fans stopped coming to our games because of our old gym.”
Since the ultimate triumph, the Red Foxes have been treated as conquering heroes. This week, Mayor Mel Pennington and members of the City Council will visit the school to honor Samuel and his players at an assembly.
“I have to remind our players to watch their waistlines because they are being fed all over town by one group or another,” Griggs said.