High School Football

It’s showtime: Two Midlands football teams make ESPN debuts this weekend

It’s been five years since a South Carolina high school football team has appeared on an ESPN broadcast. This weekend it happens twice, both with Columbia-area teams.

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Midlands powerhouses Dutch Fork and Hammond will showcase their high-profile football programs and stadiums in a pair of nationally-televised contests.

Three-time Class 5A champion Dutch Fork hosts North Carolina powerhouse Mallard Creek on Friday at 6 p.m., while two-time defending SCISA 3A champ Hammond takes on Southern Columbia (Pa.) on Sunday at 2 p.m. Both games are on ESPN2.

It is the first time since Byrnes faced Northwestern in 2014 that a South Carolina team has appeared on an ESPN channel as part of their high school football coverage. No high school football teams from Columbia have ever appeared on the network.

“With the TV and Mallard Creek, a North Carolina opponent, it is kind of like playing a state championship at the beginning of the year,” Dutch Fork coach Tom Knotts said this week at practice. “Lot of excitement and a lot going on, a lot more than I like. I like to just focus on what we are doing. But it is exciting and we are happy to be here. I’m glad it is finally here.”

Hammond coach Erik Kimrey says playing on ESPN2 is a good way to showcase his program and honor players, both past and present, who have worn a Skyhawks uniform.

“Proud of our accomplishments of players in the past and provided us this opportunity to play on a national stage,” Kimrey said. “Win, lose or draw, we are going to learn a lot about ourselves. It is an achievement of our program over years past. Hopefully, we honor those guys with our play.”

Dutch Fork and Hammond’s matchups are part of ESPN’s Geico High School Football Kickoff, which includes seven games on ESPN’s networks from Friday through Sunday. The process of picking matchups began in January, according to Paragon Marketing’s Robin Kelner.

A variety of things go into picking the games, Kelner said, including tradition of the programs and getting top-flight Division I prospects — especially ones ranked in ESPN’s Top 300.

Both matchups feature plenty of tradition and stars. Dutch Fork was recently named MaxPreps’ S.C. team of the decade for their four state titles and five championship appearances since 2010. The Silver Foxes, who have won 25 straight games, feature Tennessee commit Jalin Hyatt and Clemson baseball commit Ty Olenchuk.

Mallard Creek, winners of three straight state titles from 2013-15, has Auburn commit Trenton Simpson, Miami commit Quentin Williams and Charlotte commit Arabee Muslim.

Hammond has won 10 state titles under Kimrey and also carries a 25-game winning streak into the game. The Skyhawks have highly-touted recruits Jordan Burch and Alex Huntley. Burch is ranked No. 2 by 247Sports and No. 5 in ESPN’s Top 300. Huntley, a South Carolina commit, is ranked in ESPN’s Top 300 and in the top 200 by 247Sports.

Southern Columbia receiver Julian Fleming is the No. 1 receiver in the country and top five recruit nationally. They also have Michigan State commit Cal Halady, Michigan recruit Gaige Garcia and Temple commit Preston Zachman.

“These kind of interstate matchups are good for national interest,” Kellner said. “You also want to show high-end players going to high-end schools.”

A lot also goes into the logistics of making sure the games go off smoothly. ESPN made site visits to Dutch Fork and Hammond this month to look over the facilities. In Hammond’s case, 950 extra seats were brought for the end zone to increase the stadium’s capacity to around 3,500. Dutch Fork’s stadium seats 10,000.

Hammond athletics director Jeff Barnes said a new sound system, which was planned before the season, also will be in place for the game.

ESPN gives Dutch Fork and Hammond stipends to help with costs of security and other expenses. Knotts said the two schools will split the ticket revenue with 60% going to Dutch Fork and 40% to Mallard Creek.

ESPN gets the money from Hammond’s ticket sales, Barnes said, but the school will try to make its share from concession sales and charging $10 for parking. Parking is typically free for Hammond games.

ESPN covers travel costs for both road teams, including hotel rooms for Southern Columbia. Southern Columbia is traveling by bus for the 647-mile trip from Pennsylvania and will get here Friday. The team also will be visiting Riverbanks Zoo while they are in Columbia. Members of Hammond’s booster club will serve as chaperones for Southern Columbia, Barnes said.

Hammond buses will shuttle in Southern Columbia fans from their hotel to the stadium Sunday.

“We have all hands on deck,” Barnes said. “Our kids are excited, becoming more real for everyone involved. We expect a good turnout and crowd. It is a good problem to have, and our kids have worked hard and deserve it.”

As for the players, they can’t wait to showcase their skills in front of a national audience.

“Hopefully, it will be sold out,” Dutch Fork receiver Jalin Hyatt said. “Playing on ESPN is what you dream of. We are going to come out with a lot of fire and do our best to beat Mallard Creek.”

“This program has been waiting for a long time to kind of show what they are worth,” Hammond quarterback Jackson Muschamp said. “We have prepared all summer and even since last spring for this. ... It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”


What: Mallard Creek at Dutch Fork

When: Friday, 6 p.m.

TV: ESPN2 (Matt Schick and Tom Luginbill on the broadcast)

Tickets: $7


What: Southern Columbia (Pa.) at Hammond

When: Sunday, 2 p.m.

TV: ESPN2 (Mike Morgan and Cole Cubelic on the broadcast)

Tickets: $10

Lou Bezjak is the High School Sports Prep Coordinator for The State and Island Packet. He has covered high school sports in South Carolina for 16 years and is a two-time South Carolina Sports Writer of the Year by the National Sports Media Association.