Call it a case of stage fright.
Newberry players say nerves and the atmosphere of playing in a state championship game might have gotten the best of them in last year’s 49-27 loss to Dillon in the Class 2A, Division I title game. The Bulldogs hope those things won’t be a factor this time around as they meet the Wildcats again for the championship Friday at Benedict College.
“I feel like we were nervous, just happy to be there and weren’t looking toward winning,” Newberry quarterback Yafari Werts said. “It took us a while to get into a rhythm of a game, and we weren’t able to come out victorious.”
Newberry coach Phil Strickland agreed.
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“We were in awe last year,” Strickland said. “We hadn’t been there in a while. Maybe we just were happy to be there. I think we are a little more focused and hungry to win this thing.”
Newberry is looking for its first title in school history, and Strickland is trying to become the fourth coach in state history to lead three different schools to a championship. Strickland, who came to Newberry in 2010, won two titles at Batesburg-Leesville in 1995 and 1999 and led Gaffney to championships in 2003 and 2005-06.
A victory also would give Strickland his 300th victory of his career, but the hall of fame coach isn’t dwelling on personal accolades or his previous state championship glory.
“I’m not here for me. We are trying to win Newberry a state championship, that is first and foremost,” Strickland said. “I think it would be electrifying if we could do it and would set the town on fire. Newberry has been a rich tradition all these years. They just haven’t been able to get on the peak of the mountain.”
Dillon also is trying to make its own history. The Wildcats have won 36 straight games, and are looking to become only the fourth team in state history to win four titles in a row. Christ Church was the last to do it from 2011-14.
Despite losing several key starters to injury this season, Dillon has steamrolled its way to its seventh championship appearance in eight seasons. The Wildcats have outscored opponents 601-80, and a running clock was used in the second half in all but one of the team’s 13 games.
“We practiced to play fourth quarters every day, but have been able to blow some teams out,” said Dillon coach Jackie Hayes, who is making his 10th championship appearance. “I’m sure this game will be a four-quarter game. We are playing an outstanding football team with an outstanding coach and look forward to opportunity.”
Dillon is lead by Coastal Carolina commit Avery McCall, who is trying to become the first player in state history to win four titles as a starting quarterback. As a freshman, McCall threw three TDs in the title game against Fairfield Central. Last year against the Bulldogs, he passed for 230 yards and two scores.
“We got to get pressure on him and make sure he doesn’t have his best game,” Newberry linebacker Jacaree Caldwell said.
The Bulldogs counter with their own playmaking quarterback in Werts, a Georgia Southern commit. The senior has accounted for 5,790 total yards and 50 TDs in his career.
Sophomore Amir Abrams has emerged as the top running back and leads the team with 1,214 yards. The Bulldogs are also led by a strong veteran group on the offensive line, led by Shrine Bowler Demarcus Gilmore.
All games at Benedict College
Class 2A, Division I
Dillon vs. Newberry, 7 p.m.
Class A, Division I
Southside Christian vs. Allendale Fairfax, noon
Class A, Division II
Lamar vs. C.E. Murray, 3 p.m.
Class 2A, Division II
Abbeville vs. Silver Bluff, 6 p.m.
RADIO: Newberry’s game will be broadcast on 1240 AM and www.wkdk.com.
INTERNET: All games this weekend will be streamed on www.nfhsnetwork.com for a fee of $9.95. Burch Antley, Stacey Hough, Emerson Phillips and Tyler Cupp will be on the broadcasts.