As an assistant at A.C. Flora, coach Dustin Curtis was used to winning and trips to the postseason.
Curtis didn’t get either in his first season at Westwood. The Redhawks went 2-8 and missed the playoffs in 2016.
This season, Westwood returned to the playoffs and got its signature win this past Friday when it defeated fourth-ranked and unbeaten North Augusta, 23-13, in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs. Westwood was the only team in the state to beat a No. 1 seed and region champion in the first round of the playoffs.
“Last year was real difficult,” said Curtis, who spent seven seasons as an assistant at A.C. Flora before taking Westwood job. “Had kids get hurt, brand new coaches, brand new system. … We weren’t quite grown up enough last year.”
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Westwood (6-5) travels to Eastside for a second-round matchup Friday. The Eagles are coached by former Blythewood coach Dan Morgan, who is 10-1 in his first season at Eastside.
The Redhawks have their share of emotional highs and lows leading to this point. It started in March when rising senior Ellis Hawkins was killed in a car accident.
Hawkins’ memory remains in the forefront for the Westwood coaches and players. They wear “EH45” stickers on their helmets and bring his No. 45 jersey out to the field each week. Curtis said the team talked of memories of Hawkins’ last week during its pre-game meal.
“It made us come together as a team,” quarterback Elijah Heatley said. “We value life more and come out with our brothers and enjoy each others more. Helped us build as team and get to where we are today.
“We bring his jersey to every game and it helps us. When we are doing bad, we look at his jersey and we just smile.”
Westwood started strong with a 3-1 start but was blown out by Dutch Fork, then suffered a three-game losing streak in Region 3-4A play, which included losses to No. 1 South Pointe, York and Ridge View. All three teams were ranked in the top 10 at some point this season but Curtis said those games got them ready for the playoffs.
“North Augusta is a great team and they had a fantastic year,” Curtis said. “Our kids had confidence in what we were doing and I think they knew they weren’t going to see anything that we haven’t before.”
Another help has been the reemergence of Westwood’s running game. The Redhawks rushed for more than 300 yards in the regular-season finale against Richland Northeast.
Last week against North Augusta, Westwood rushed for 163 and held the Jackets’ high-power offense to 13 points.
Westwood will have to use that formula this week against Eastside, which has a strong passing game led by North-South quarterback Jordan Morgan.
“When we are a complete team and have everyone here available and locked in, we believe that we can be really good,” Curtis said. “It has just taken us a little while to gel.”