Quin McCollum’s Keenan High football team had just lost its Class 2A, Division II state championship game to Timberland. Yet the coach was in no mood for hung heads or fallen tears.
McCollum walked the perimeter of the Keenan locker room at River Bluff High, making certain to stop in front of each player and exchange a fist bump. He wanted every last one of his players to understand what they had accomplished this season.
“Good job,” he said to one, then “keep your head up” to the next, and “good job,” to the next. All the way around the room.
The final 35-12 score might not have indicated it, but Keenan proved Friday night that it belonged. It proved that the Raiders could compete at the highest level against the best in the state.
“We always say we shouldn’t be here,” McCollum said, “but tonight we showed we’re supposed to be here.”
Had Keenan played error-free football, it might have won a state title. Instead, Timberland scored touchdowns on a fumble return and an interception return. A blocked Keenan punt led to a 35-yard Timberland touchdown drive, and a failed faked punt led to another touchdown drive that covered 23 yards.
Timberland, which completed a 14-0 season and won its second state championship, had to go 44 yards for its longest scoring drive of the game. Heck, Keenan recorded more first downs (13-8) and gained more yards (322-215) than Timberland.
“You can’t make mistakes like that against a team like that and win,” said McCollum, who pointed to the side of the field where Timberland players were celebrating.
“We want to be like Timberland,” McCollum said of one of the state’s perennial powers.
In his second season as a head coach, McCollum has Keenan headed in that direction. His club went 7-5 a season ago, losing to Fairfield Central in the second round of the state playoffs.
Prior to his first game as Keenan’s coach a year ago, McCollum introduced his team to a 2x4 piece of wood that would from that day forward be known as the Raiders’ rally stick. On one side was painted “Raider Nation,” on the other “We Gotta Go.”
Every day during offseason workouts and throughout the season McCollum shouts to his team, “We gotta go! We gotta go!” One player is elected to tote the stick onto the field before every game and it rests behind the team bench as a constant reminder of the coach’s motto.
Then, instead of engaging his team in a preseason jamboree among area teams, McCollum took the Raiders to Marlboro County in August.
“I wanted them to see what a big-time atmosphere looked like,” McCollum said. “That was a piece of the puzzle for us. They saw it. That was a big learning experience for our guys.”
When Keenan was not ranked in the preseason, McCollum and the team played off the underdog role.
“We like it, to be honest. We liked flying under the radar,” junior running back Tyreick Davis-Newton said. “Then, when you prove everybody wrong, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Keenan proved a few folks wrong during a regular season that saw the Raiders go 7-3 and finish third in the region. Then it was a beautiful thing during Keenan’s three-game sweep to the title game.
“It’s been a wonderful ride,” McCollum said before the title game.
Afterward, he addressed his team one final time with a simple message.
“We made history,” he told them. “We made history.”