Defending Division II-A state champion Cross had to deal with a big loss before this season started.

The week before summer practice was to begin, assistant coach Antonio Simmons died of a heart attack.

Simmons, 34, attended Berkeley High School and played for coach Jerry Brown, helping the Stags win two state titles (1994, ’96) during the school’s golden era. He was a three-year starter. He played at Charleston Southern along with Cross head coach Shawn Wright and had a very productive college career, earning All-America status.

Simmons was more than a coach for the Trojans, who begin defense of their state championship with a 7:30 p.m. home game against Lincoln on Friday.

“His death had more of an effect on the older players,” said senior offensive lineman Greg Jones. “He was connected to the older players and he was more than a coach. He was like a father figure to us. It’s hard for a day to go by and not think of him.”

Wright had to quickly scramble to find a replacement and hired former Kingstree coach Reginald Jamison as the new defensive coordinator.

“At the beginning of the season, we were trying to find ourselves,” Wright said. “We had question marks on defense and coach Simmons’ death didn’t make it any easier. We had to find a new defensive coordinator and we knew his job would be that much harder.”

The Trojans are 5-5 but have improved every week. They lost to Hemingway 37-12 on Sept. 12, but Wright called it the turning point of the season.

“Before that game, the kids were at each other’s throats,” Wright said. “But that night, we lost together as a team. After the fifth week, we were on the right track.”

Running back Devontae Shepherd admitted his team’s start was rocky. But hard work and faith righted the Trojans’ ship.

“We are where we need to be at this stage of the season,” he said. “We won the state championship as juniors, but there’s no guarantee that we will win it this year. Sometimes, it’s just not meant to be. But I know we can get back there.”

Another running back, Dionte Evans, said the team has worked hard to overcome all of the adversity it has faced this year.

“If you practice hard, you make strides,” he said. “We just want to make that same trip back to the state championship.”

Wright who played at Cross in the mid-1990s, has been coach at his alma mater since 2009. When he was named coach, his goal was to make the Trojans as successful as the other football programs in Berkeley County.

And if the Trojans win their second straight state title, it will be mission accomplished in only five years.