There have been “big” football games at Berkeley High School’s Bonner Stadium over the years, but few rival the showdown that will take place Friday night.
Fort Dorchester visits Berkeley in a battle of two of the best Class AAAAA teams in South Carolina. Fort Dorchester is ranked third in the state with a 5-1 record (the Patriots forfeited their season-opening victory against Glynn Academy of Georgia).
Berkeley is ranked sixth in the state with a 6-0 record that includes close wins over Summerville (34-30) and Ashley Ridge (28-21).
“It’s going to be a great night for Lowcountry football,” Fort Dorchester head coach Steve LaPrad said. “They’re really good and we think we are sort of good. Should be a great atmosphere. We’ve been in a few big games so hopefully we are prepared."
The teams last played each other in 2009, Berkeley’s last state championship team under former coach Jerry Brown. Berkeley won that contest, 33-30.
Since then, Fort Dorchester’s program has risen to the top of the heap in terms of Lowcountry football. The Patriots won the Class AAAA title in 2015. The last time Fort Dorchester lost to a Lowcountry team was November of 2014 (against Ashley Ridge).
But no team in the area has put up much of a challenge since 2014. Fort Dorchester enters Friday night with a 30-game winning streak against Lowcountry teams. Over the last two seasons, the closest margin of victory for the Patriots has been 21 points.
“Fort Dorchester has been the standard around here,” Berkeley coach Randy Robinson said. “They’re talented, deep and well-coached. We know what we’re up against.”
This week’s game is easily the biggest non-region regular season game at Berkeley in a number of years. The last time this much excitement was generated for a Berkeley home game was in 2009 when the Stags edged Goose Creek, 38-35, at the end of the regular season to claim a region title.
However, back in 1994, a 10-0 Berkeley team hosted a 10-0 Stratford team before one of the biggest crowds in Bonner Stadium history. Berkeley won that game, 35-7, on their way to a perfect season and the Class AAAA state championship, also under Brown.
Berkeley’s offense is one of the top units in the state with good balance between run and pass. Senior Keshawn Wicks has rushed for 784 yards and 10 touchdowns while senior quarterback Eric Tuttle has passed for 829 yards and 12 TDs. The Stags have a pair of Division I prospects at wide receiver in DJ Chisolm and Dervon Pesnell.
Robinson said as good as his offense is, his team will be challenged by the speed of Fort Dorchester’s defense, which is led by senior linebacker Davon Gilmore.
“Their team speed really jumps out on film. They can really run,” Robinson said. “You don’t see a lot of high schools with so many guys that can run like they can. And, they are a physical bunch on defense. They get after people, which is nothing new. They’ve always had a physical defense.
“No. 33 (Gilmore) is as good a linebacker as I’ve ever seen. The kid is a fantastic football player. He has great people around him but he’s the guy we have to block. We won’t run the football if we don’t block 33.”
Robinson said handling the early jitters will be important for his team, and he hopes that playing in the lower state final last season will help them deal with the nervousness that comes in big games.
“It’s a big game for our town and our program but we have to stay focused on what happens on the field,” Robinson said. “There will be a lot of people here and I’m sure Fort will be jacked up. It’s good for the Lowcountry. Hopefully we can put on a good show.”
A crowd of more than 7,000 is expected. Berkeley principal Steven Steele is not sure what the stadium officially holds but he expects every seat to be occupied. The school has encouraged the purchase of tickets early to avoid long lines at the gate.