Coach Aric Samuel had no idea the state championship won by his Hartsville High boys basketball team last season would start an athletics revival at the school.
It all began a year ago when Samuel’s sixth Red Fox team capped a 23-6 season with a 69-56 conquest of Southside in the Class 3A championship game, netting the program’s first state title.
“It was a very satisfying thing for the program, the school and the community,” said Samuel, who was a star player at Hartsville in the early 1990s. “We got close a few times, but never got it done. It was a great feeling to get that first banner to hang up in the gym.”
As it turned out, it was just the beginning.
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The Red Foxes softball team followed suit with its first state championship in May, and Jeff Calabrese’s football team overcame the tragic death of a player to secure the program’s fifth state title — the first since 1997.
The school never before had as many as three state championship teams in the same calendar year.
“Ever since I came back to Hartsville, I talked about restoring pride in the basketball program,” Samuel said. “Maybe our getting over the hump was a positive, motivating factor for our other teams. Now you see people all over town wearing Red Fox gear. ... There are big crowds at the games again. That wasn’t the case when I first got back.”
The feel-good phase has continued this season for Samuel and his team, but there is one task left — to beat Eastside on Saturday at Colonial Life Arena.
If successful, the Red Fox boys would be the first Hartsville hoops team to claim back-to-back championships. The girls program has four titles, none earned in consecutive seasons. It would complete a football-boys basketball title sweep in the same school year for the seventh time in the modern era of South Carolina high school sports (since 1970-71). The last school to pull it off was Fairfield Central in 1997-98.
It’s been a season with different circumstances. Hartsville was the marked team in 3A from the outset.
“We went from being the hunters to the team that was being hunted,” Samuel said. “It was a different kind of pressure, and it changed the way I handled the team. There were times I was pushing harder than the guys wanted to be pushed, but so far it’s all worked out.”
Hartsville’s only loss in 28 games was to archrival Darlington, but the Red Foxes got revenge in a 64-62 win over their county neighbors in the Lower State championship game before a packed house at the Florence Civic Center.
Senior star Jalen Shaw came up big — Michael Jordan style — in the closing seconds, hitting the go-ahead mid-range jumper with 6 seconds to go and then blocking Darlington’s last-ditch shot at the other end as the buzzer sounded.
“It felt great to come through for the team,” Shaw says, “But we have another big one coming up before we can really celebrate.”