You don’t have to be a fan of the Gamecocks or Tigers to understand that football is king in South Carolina. Not only is football big on the college level, it’s also big on the middle school level, where teams throughout the Lowcountry have been competing since school began.
The middle school season has wrapped up in Mount Pleasant and Dorchester District 2. The 10 teams in the Charleston Recreation Department’s Middle School League will wrap up their season Tuesday with bowl games.
“If you look across the state at this age group, almost everybody is going to a middle school league,” said Sam Weatherford, the football and middle school sports coordinator for the Charleston Recreation Department.
Weatherford said the middle school football program is not only a good training ground for play on the field, it also helps the youngsters prepare for such things as being required to have a certain grade-point average and adhere to standards of behavior as they move to the next level.
Oakbrook Middle School recently won the Dorchester 2 District Championship, where the Eagles scored a 34-8 victory over Gregg Middle School.
The game was played at Fort Dorchester High School and capped an undefeated season (7-0) for the Eagles, who outscored their opponents 228-54. Quarterback Greg Archie threw for 19 touchdowns and did not suffer an interception.
“I’ve had the opportunity to coach some great players in the past, and some even went on to play Division I college football,” said Oakbrook coach Joe Kornasiewicz. “But I have never had the opportunity to coach a group of young men with this amount of raw talent, toughness and speed. This group worked harder than any team I have ever coached, both in the offseason and during the season.”
Each of District 2’s middle schools fields a football team. The league is open to seventh- and eighth-graders.
“We have some volunteer coaches, but every team has at least one faculty representative,” said Dan Lee, an assistant principal at Oakbrook.
The Dorchester 2 season began Sept. 5 with the championship game played Oct. 24. Lee said players have been recognized by the high schools that the middle schools feed: Ashley Ridge, Fort Dorchester and Summerville. The middle school games were played at the high school stadiums on Wednesdays.
The other middle schools in District 2 are Rollings, DuBose, Alston and River Oaks.
The Charleston Recreation Department’s middle school football league covers a big footprint that includes Charleston, West Ashley, Johns Island, James Island and Goose Creek, Weatherford said. Teams began practicing Aug. 1, and all schools will participate in bowl games Tuesday.
Heading into the final regular-season game, Haut Gap was unbeaten with a 7-0 record. Close on the heels of the Bulldogs was C.E. Williams, whose only loss came at the hands of Haut Gap.
Players in grades 6-8 are eligible. Weatherford said all middle school coaches are volunteers.
Haut Gap coach Isaiah Pinckney Jr. has been in coaching for 17 years, beginning while serving in the Navy in Norfolk, Va., and then continuing after his tour of duty ended and he moved back to the Charleston area. This is his seventh season at Haut Gap, and he said this year’s team reminds him of his 2010 team, which went undefeated and won the championship.
“We’re young, mostly seventh-graders. We will have 17 coming back, so next year should be a strong year for us,” Pinckney said.
Pinckney said he and his assistant coaches get to know the players as early as 4 and 5 years old, when they are playing in much younger leagues.
“Making a difference is the main reason I coach,” Pinckney said. “We try to help the community with better men. I tell them all the time, God first, school second and then football. That’s my main three things.”
Fred Clute, the C.E. Williams coach, said Haut Gap has an exceptional team this year.
“They’ve got some big, fast kids,” Clute said.
Clute, who serves as the volunteer athletic director for C.E. Williams and coaches basketball, helped get the middle school program started. He said he went out in the community and helped other schools get coaches.
“We’re a feeder program for West Ashley High School and they’ve been great to work with. Half of my team was in the weight room over the summer and in the spring with the high school kids, under supervision of the high school coaches,” Clute said.
“We’ve been very successful (at C.E. Williams). All but two years, we’ve finished first or second in that league.”
The other middle school teams participating in the league are Fort Johnson, St. Andrews, Goose Creek, West Ashley Middle, James Island, Stratford, Baptist Hill and Charleston School of Math and Science.
The Mount Pleasant Recreation Department administers its middle school league based on what school a player attends. There are four middle schools — Moultrie, Laing, Cario and Christ Our King — and each school has a varsity and a junior varsity team, although Cario fields two varsity teams because of its large enrollment, said Jay Rhodes, who runs the program for the Mount Pleasant Recreation Department.
“The varsity teams play 10 games and the JV teams have a tournament at the end of the season,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes said Wando High School coach Jimmy Noonan works with the teams and holds a coaches clinic at the beginning of the season, and the volunteer coaches are invited to attend Wando practices.
The effectiveness of the middle school program is evident in Wando’s success this season. Wando graduate Gimel President, who came up through the Moultrie Middle School football program, is a member of Auburn’s football team. And current Wando player Zola Davis is one of the state’s top football prospects.
Hank Johnson has been Moultrie’s head coach for 11 years, starting when his son played and continuing after his son moved on to high school.
“It’s being able to speak to the lives of 13- and 14-year-olds and help them develop as football players,” Johnson said. “We try to teach them values around teamwork.”
Johnson said the goal is to make football fun.
“If we don’t make them into football players,” Johnson said, “we want to at least make them into football fans. It’s very gratifying to see these kids play.