As the seconds waned off the Williams-Brice Stadium clock, the Hartsville football team doused coach Jeff Calabrese with a Gatorade shower. He had to do everything in his power to keep his emotions in check.
The Red Foxes had to overcome the Oct. 5 death of teammate Ronald Rouse to complete an undefeated season and win their first state championship in football since 1998.
Hartsville and its impressive offensive display won the Class 3A state championship with a 62-27 victory over Union County on Saturday night. The 89 points tied the record for the highest scoring championship game in the modern era (post 1960). In 2002, Union (61) and Camden (28) combined for that number.
“Man, these kids have been through so much,” Calabrese said. “To be able to bring the joy of winning a state championship, it’s hard to find words and not get emotional. I will cry like a baby when I leave you boys. This team is just unbelievable. What a great story. What a great testament to true character and rising above things.”
As the teams were getting ready for the trophy presentation, lineman Dwayne McDaniel carried a flag with Rouse’s name on it and his number 74. Members of the cheerleading squad were in tears as the team celebrated with fans in the East stands.
“It means a whole lot,” McDaniel said. “We dreamed about this for a long time and we did it for (Rouse). We had something to look to and he guided us to a title. This means the world to our school and community.”
Rouse remained listed on the roster the entire season and Calabrese never questioned how his team would respond in the biggest game of the season.
“We’ve been very blessed to have a group of young men that never quit,” he said. “With all we’ve been through, they were extremely focused. God was on their shoulder tonight and helped us stay focused and gave us the strength to compete and that’s exactly what we did tonight. I am so proud of these kids. This has been very difficult. I am so impressed with our young men.”
The Red Foxes (15-0) scored on all six possessions in the first half to build a 48-20 halftime lead. Trey Samuel had 194 of his 274 yards rushing and two touchdowns at the half and Trey Rogers added three touchdowns before the break. Rogers finished with five touchdowns on runs of 2, 6, 1, 1 and 10 yards to go along with 110 yards on 18 carries.
Union County tried to match them, but two interceptions and a punt in the first half thwarted that effort. The key blow came just before the half. The Yellow Jackets were inside the Hartsville 20-yard line when Keiston Smith threw behind his intended receiver and Fisher Payne snagged the deflection. He rumbled 91 yards for a score with 10 seconds remaining in the half.
Before that interception, Smith had a touchdown called back for holding. A potential 14-point game at the half ballooned to a 28-point gap.
“That was tough,” Union County coach Steve Taneyhill said. “We get that one, we get the ball back to start the second half and you never know. That was a heck of a play by that kid.”
Three of the six scoring drives required fewer than three plays and the Red Foxes went into the half with 300 yards of offense and finished with 512. Union County had 289 yards in the half and 393 for the game but three huge turnovers.
Samuel added scoring runs of 55 and 14 yards.
“We do what we do,” Calabrese said. “We have a great group of seniors on offense and they came to play. On defense, we got a couple of stops when we had to have them and got a couple of turnovers. It was a team win.”
Smith, a Shrine Bowl quarterback, ran for 102 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 264 yards and two more scores.
Union County rebounded from a 5-5 regular season and won four playoffs on the road to finish 9-6.