It’s been a tale of two teams united by one coach.
Jeff Cruce is his second year as coach of the Berkeley Stags, and will lead his team into the second round of the Class AAA playoffs tonight when the Stags travel to the Grand Strand to battle second-ranked and undefeated Socastee in a 7:30 p.m. showdown.
The Stags are a completely different team than the one that began the season with a 1-6 record and were outscored 181-83. The team that’s hitting the road today is 4-0 and has outscored foes 155-54 in its last four games.
“It’s been a season of life lessons,” said Cruce, who posted a 4-7 last fall after replacing the legendary Jerry Brown, who won 175 games and three state championships at the school. “We fumbled the ball here and made a mistake there but we never quit. The biggest life lesson is perseverance. When things go bad, you don’t give up. It’s been a spiritual life lesson.”
Cruce admits that coaching in Moncks Corner, where football is king, can be tough when the losses outnumber the wins. He’s heard the critics in the stands and on the telephone and has received their emails. But he never wavered in his faith in himself.
“Moncks Corner is a very unique place,” Cruce said. “I dare say but it is one of the top five communities in the state as far as high school football is concerned. Berkeley High School and its football team is the centerpiece of the community.
“If you listen (to some fans), it can drive you crazy,” Cruce added. “I’ve actually told people not to call me or send me emails. I am an adult and can take criticism. But when you criticize my players — that’s malicious. They’re teenagers.”
Cruce has drawn on his experiences at Hanahan and Cane Bay, programs he turned into winners.
“If I were a younger coach, I might have been overwhelmed,” Cruce said. “But I drew on my experience. We went 0-10 in my first year at Hanahan, 6-6 the second year and then had that great run (where we won 12 straight region championships). It was the same thing at Cane Bay. It’s a process you go through.”
Cruce dismissed four starters from the team this season and that showed his players he was committed to discipline.
“You can’t sacrifice the integrity of the program when a kid makes a mistake and doesn’t have the right attitude,” Cruce said. “When you say something, you have to stick to your word. You give your players boundaries and they have to stay within it.”
The Stags’ first victory came in Week 5 when they topped defending Division II-AA state champ Timberland 21-20 thanks to 10 Wolves’ turnovers.
“Obviously, a win, a win of that caliber, helps us mentally,” Cruce said after the game. “It’s hard for us because we’re so young.”
The team has final mature as is the program. The B- and junior varsity teams have winning records and next year’s team will include 40 seniors if there is no attrition.
Running back Ezekiel Jenkins and quarterback Matt Harkness have shown improvement every week.
Jenkins scored three touchdowns and amassed 321 all-purpose yards to lead Berkeley to a 51-32 victory over Hilton Head that gave the Stags a berth in the playoffs.
The defense is led by outstanding defensive ends Cyrus Pinckney and Jewuan Jefferson.
Last week, Pinckney recorded a fumble recovery, 2.5 sacks to lead a Stag defense that held Midland Valley to 175 yards of total offense in their first-round 24-2 win.
“We ready for the challenge of playing the No. 1 or 2 team in the state,” Cruce said. “We believe in ourselves.”