Fairfield Central and Newberry find themselves in a place that maybe not many people thought they would be in on Thanksgiving week.
The Griffins and Bulldogs face-off Friday night in the Class 2A Division 1 Upper State final.
In the preseason, each team had doubts about progressing this far.
Fairfield Central, under second-year coach Demetrius Davis, had two returning offensive starters.
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“I’d be lying if I told you at the beginning of the year that we would be one game from playing for a state championship,” Davis said. “I don’t think we have the athletes we had last year but, overall, I think we have better football players.”
With inexperience on offense, the Griffins leaned on a stout defense early in the season until the offensive could find it’s footing.
Davis believes that happened when Fairfield Central traveled to Abbeville. The Griffins turned it over five times in the first half and eventually lost, but started an eight-game winning streak after that.
“Sometimes you learn more about yourself after a loss than you do a win,” Davis said. “Our team sort of found out we could play with teams the caliber of Abbeville and be okay.
“Our quarterback, DeAndre Melton, really grew up in that game. He was our JV quarterback last year and he’s really turned the corner since the Abbeville game and become one of our leaders.”
Melton, a junior, has done it with his arm and legs. He has thrown for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns to go along with 1,051 rushing yards and 11 scores on the ground.
“As the season has gone on,, you could see his confidence growing,” Davis said. “He had to go through that process of gaining more experience and he’s comfortable with what we’re doing now.”
Melton isn’t the only weapon for the Griffins (10-2). Damien Bell has 1,180 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns, and Larry Bell has added 495 yards and 10 touchdowns.
This is the first-year for Fairfield Central in Class 2A and Davis believes playing in a Class 3A region last year that featured heavyweights South Pointe, York and Nations Ford helped this team make the transition.
“One thing I have learned is there are a lot of good coaches, players and teams in Class 2A,” Davis said. “But I think we were prepared and it’s shown over the last several weeks.”
Newberry (10-3) has had to take a difficult road in the playoffs. It earned a No. 6 seed so they had to play an opening-round game while higher seeds received a bye.
Then the past two weeks they have went on the road to defeat Columbia and Central in two hard-fought contests. The Central victory prevented the Eagles from going to their sixth consecutive state semifinal appearance.
The Bulldogs have won six in a row and feature a tough defense and the coaching off veteran Phil Strickland, now in his second season at Newberry. Strickland has won five state titles in his career, two with Batesburg-Leesville (1995, 1999) and three with Gaffney (2003, 2005, 2006).
The defense is led by Shrine Bowl defensive tackle Eric Gallman (6-foot-1, 278 pounds), while the offensive side is led by Shrine Bowl offensive lineman Trahjare Reeder (6-5, 315). They lead the way for running back Tyon Williams.
“I know this sounds silly to say but they are the Alabama of high school football around here,” Davis said, despite the Bulldogs three losses. “I’’ve watched a lot of film on them and I have yet to see anybody block Gallman.”