With SCHSL teams opening practice Friday, here are 10 story lines to watch this season.
1. IS DUTCH FORK READY?
There has not been a High School League champion from the Midlands since Blythewood’s first season in 2006. There has not been a Midlands 4A champion since Richland Northeast’s win against Hartsville in the Division II finale. There has not been a Midlands 4A Division I winner since Spring Valley’s 3-0 upset of Gaffney in 1988 under coach Jerry Brown (the current Batesburg-Leesville boss).
Dutch Fork has flirted with greatness since the arrival of Tom Knotts. The Silver Foxes took a big step last season, reaching the Division I title game in Knotts’ third season in charge.
2. QUARTERBACK HEADLINERS
Lexington’s Will Hunter, Dutch Fork’s Derek Olenchuk, Fairfield Central’s DeAndre Belton and C.A. Johnson’s Mike Knox are the established stars at the glamour position in the area.
Hunter, a four-year starter, has thrown for 7,448 yards and 71 touchdowns. Olenchuk, a three-year starter, passed for 3,501 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Belton propelled the Griffins to the Class 2A Division I title game with impressive numbers by land and air — 1,487 yards passing and 1,158 yards rushing.
Knox, a three-year starter, ran for 783 yards and eight touchdowns and threw for 1,914 yards .
Spring Valley’s Christian Miller and Hammond’s Cannon Smith are the most highly regarded college prospects in the Midlands.
Miller (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) recently committed to Alabama after seeing his stock soar in the wake of an outstanding junior season that saw him produce 121 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and 14 sacks as an outside linebacker.
Smith, who is perhaps the most coveted college prospect to come out of the SCISA ranks, is a prototype tight end at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds. He committed early to Clemson.
4. FAMILIAR FACES IN NEW PLACES
There are six new head coaches in the Midlands, three of whom have moved from one area school to another.
Dean Howell (37-12 in four seasons at A.C. Flora) is at White Knoll. Josh Stepp (11-21 in three seasons at Dreher) is at Lexington. Reggie Shaw (36-32 in six seasons at Ben Lippen) has moved into Howell’s vacated job at Flora.
The rest of the newcomers include Dan Morgan at Blythewood, Treigh Sullivan at Dreher and Quin McCollum at Keenan.
5. CAN HAMMOND REGAIN THE MAGIC?
After six consecutive SCISA Class 3A championships, the Skyhawks fell short last year to Augusta Christian, finishing with a 12-2 record. Hammond has talent and experience on offense, but a lot of questions on defense.
6. GRIFFINS WON’T SURPRISE AGAIN
Fairfield Central surprised coach Demetrius Davis by winning 11 games and reaching the Class 2A Division I championship game. The Griffins expect to get another shot at a title in November, but it won’t be easy with a loaded field featuring defending champion Dillon, and on-the-rise Newberry under coach Phil Strickland.
7. COACHING MILESTONE
Ben Freeman enters his 30th season as a head football coach in South Carolina, his 29th at a Midlands school — matching Charles Macaluso’s record. Freeman spent one season at Denmark-Olar before becoming the first coach at Fairfield Central in 1986. In 1990, he moved to Pelion.
Macaluso spent 13 seasons at A.C. Flora (1973-85), 12 at Columbia (1986-97) and four at Fairfield Central (1998-2001).
8. GATORS TEST THE WATERS
River Bluff, the new school in Lexington District One, opens this season with a full slate of varsity sports, except for football. Former Coastal Carolina coach David Bennett will guide the Gators through a junior varsity schedule.
9. STREAK OF NOTE
Heathwood Hall has an interesting opener on Aug. 31 against Christ Church (Greenville) in the “Episcopal Bowl.” The visiting Cavaliers have won back-to-back High School League Class A Division I titles and bring the state’s longest current winning streak to town — 26 games.
10. CHANGING THE CULTURE
The long-suffering programs at Eau Claire and Lower Richland enter the new season with the same goal — a winning record. Eau Claire has endured 26 consecutive losing seasons, while LR is second with 20 straight losing campaigns. The last winning record at Eau Claire was a 6-5 mark in 1986 under coach Gerald Kelly. LR’s last winning record was also 6-5 in 1992.