Weekend of Champions

Football State ChampionshipsTodayat Benedict College, ColumbiaClass AA Division IFairfield-Central vs. Dillon, 5:30 p.m.Class AA Division IIBishop England vs. Abbeville, 8:30 p.m.Saturdayat Williams-Brice Stadium, ColumbiaClass AAAA Division IINorthwestern vs. Greenwood, noonClass AAAA Division IGaffney vs. Dutch Fork, 3:30 p.m.Class AAAHartsville vs. Union County, 6 p.m.

It began in the dog days of August with weightlifting, wind sprints, blocking sleds and tackling dummies.

There were two-a-days, scrimmages, and even some blood, sweat and tears.

Dreams come with a price, and the Bishop England football players paid their dues to reach today’s Class AA, Division II state championship game against Abbeville.

Twenty seniors have bonded together with a common goal, and that’s to repeat as state champions.

“We focused on the work almost immediately after we beat Central last year in the championship,” Bishop England running back DeAngelo Stephenson said. “We really worked hard in the offseason and never slowed down. It wasn’t hard to stay focused, to stay humble. We wanted to go back there because there’s no other feeling like it in the world.”

The Bishops have had an impressive two-year run — one state title, two region championships and a 25-2 record heading into tonight’s 8:30 showdown against Abbeville at Benedict College in Columbia.

The Panthers are 11-2 this season and are seeking their third consecutive state title. They won crowns in 2009 and ’10 competing at the Division I-A level.

The Bishops lost some impressive players from last year’s team, including All-Lowcountry selections Andrew Bunch and Cameron Swails, and quarterback Danny Croghan, who now plays for Charleston Southern.

Coach John Cantey had to come up with seven new starters on defense, and after a shaky start, the Bishops defense has become rock solid. They allowed 101 points in the first six games of the season and have surrendered just 73 in the last seven games.

“It was a lot of work,” Cantey said. “But it was just a process of learning what the kids were supposed to be doing on defense. We weren’t stellar in the beginning, but it’s been an improving work in progress.”

Cantey said Abbeville is bigger and stronger than his squad, and the Panthers have three talented running backs and a sophomore quarterback with big-time talent.

Both the Panthers and Bishop England rely heavily on the running game. Abbeville has rushed for 4,091 yards while the Bishops have 3,584 yards.

O’Bryan Wilson leads the Panthers in rushing with 1,158 yards and 14 touchdowns, and teammate C.J. Martin has gained 881 yards with 10 touchdowns. Mike Bolden has chipped in with 487 yards and six scores.

Quarterback Kelly Bryant has rushed for 588 yards and six touchdowns, despite missing four games with an injury.

Stephenson leads the Bishops with 1,217 yards and 22 touchdowns, and Griffie Loy has 616 yards and 11 TDs. Nick Theos has added 315 yards on the ground, and Nick Shiver has 238.

Quarterback Kevin Herbst has 720 yards rushing and 756 passing.

The Bishops know they are in for a challenge.

“We just have to go out there and play our game,” Theos said. “Being able to bring home that championship last year is a dream come true. But we’re not dreaming. We have one more game.”

Follow Philip M. Bowman on Twitter: @pandcphil