When Cullen Bagwell and Malik McDonald were freshmen at Charleston Charter School for Math and Science, they led the Riptide's first-year soccer program to the Class A state championship game.

Now that they are seniors, the duo has a better idea of what it means to be going back to the state title game.

"It was hard the last couple of years not getting back to state after we made it as freshmen," said McDonald, who scored two goals in Tuesday's 3-0 win over Branchville in the Lower State title game. "But we're finally going back, and it feels great. Now, we have a good squad and we know what it takes to get there."

The Riptide (11-3) will face Upper State champ St. Joseph's, a 1-0 winner over Christ Church, in the state title game at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at River Bluff High School in Lexington.

Charleston Charter will be a heavy underdog in that game, but the Riptide is a scrappy bunch and relishes that role. The Riptide plays its home games at Corrine Jones Park, a playground in the Wagener Terrace neighborhood not far from the school's King Street campus. When shots went wide of the goal during Tuesday's Lower State final, they interrupted the pickup basketball game on the adjacent court.

"We started from scratch, but we've come a long way," said Riptide athletic director Brett Phillips, who has seen his middle-school and high school program grow from seven teams to 26, including a junior-varsity football team that will begin play this fall. "We're not there by any means, but we're making strides."

Bagwell and McDonald are part of the third graduating class at Charleston Charter, which opened with sixth through ninth graders in 2008 and played its first year of varsity sports in the S.C. High School League in 2010-11. That's the year the Riptide made the state finals, losing 7-1 to Upper State power Christ Church.

"This is the fourth year we've had a soccer program and the second year we're going to state," said Riptide coach Micki Boulineau. "Our seniors have come a long way and they've grown a lot. They've become leaders, and they've improved their skills tremendously this year."

McDonald is the first scholarship athlete in Charleston Charter's short history; he's signed to play soccer at Division II Anderson University.

McDonald got the Riptide on the board early, scoring on an assist from sophomore Joseph Riley. His second goal was unassisted, giving Charleston Charter a 2-0 lead at the half. Carl Koches iced the game with a second-half goal with an assist from Jackson Spinelli. Keeper Chesapeake Charles preserved the shutout against Branchville, which lost in the Lower State final to Blackville-Hilda last season.

"We wanted to score as early as possible and get them on their heels, and we did that," McDonald said.

When it was over, the players celebrated with the "Riptide Rowdies," a group of sign-waving fellow students.

"It feels great," Bagwell said. "We had a lot of fans out today, the biggest crowd we had all year, so it felt great."