Gators, Patriots battle for spot in state finals

They met two months ago — both battling early injuries and trying to figure things out. The rematch between Fort Dorchester and Goose Creek on Friday night, however, is a much bigger deal.

The two area powers meet in one of two Division I-AAAA state semifinal matchups, seeking to earn a berth in next Saturday’s state championship game at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Both teams have obviously improved and healed over the last nine weeks. Fort Dorchester continues to have the best season in school history, entering the game at 13-0, while Goose Creek has rebounded from a 1-3 start to win eight straight games heading into Friday.

Fort Dorchester head coach Steve LaPrad expects a championship-level type of game.

“We weren’t even close to being full strength the first time we played and I know they were having some issues as well,” LaPrad said. “They are playing better, really well offensively, and our team has really been playing well down the stretch as well. It will be a heckuva football game. I figure there might be a little more scoring in this one because both offenses are really executing at a high level. It will be a tight game though. We certainly will have to play our best game of the season.”

The Patriots clearly are playing as well offensively as they have all season. Led by sophomore quarterback Dakereon Joyner, who has 398 yards passing and six touchdowns and 177 yards rushing and four scores in two playoff games, the Patriots are scoring on nearly every possession. Joyner has 2,689 yards passing and 26 touchdowns to go with 882 yards rushing and 16 scores this season.

Senior receiver Diondre Champaigne has 10 catches, four for touchdowns, in the playoffs. Senior running back Datron James has rushed for 222 yards and two scores in the postseason.

The low point of the season for Goose Creek came in a 21-0 loss to Summerville, a week before a 20-13 loss to Fort Dorchester. Injuries, however, were just a part of the early story. First-year head coach Chris Candor says his team was not functioning as a team should. It was after the Summerville game that Candor decided things had to change.

“That was the game for me,” said Candor, who delivered a scathing post-game tirade to his team on the field after the Summerville game. “The injuries certainly affected us, but we had some attitude and effort issues that had to change moving forward. We had to decide at that point if we wanted to be a football team. I told the players that either they were with me, totally committed, or they could go.”

The Gators played much better in the loss to Fort Dorchester and have not lost since. During the current eight-game winning streak, the Gators have averaged 38 points per game offensively.

“We made a few changes, on both sides of the ball, and we got healthy again,” Candor said. “We have steadily progressed some each week. Even though we lost to Fort Dorchester the next week, I saw a lot of positives. Their attitude has been great and they’ve worked really hard. Our confidence level is really high right now. We’ve come together very well.”

Senior quarterback Dominique Jefferson has been the catalyst offensively for the Gators. Jefferson has accumulated 1,072 yards and 12 touchdowns passing while adding 1,350 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.

“Their quarterback is a stud,” LaPrad said. “He makes that whole thing go. He’s been around a few years and has played a ton of football for those guys. We certainly have to do our best to contain him.”

The power back tandem of Evan Ulery and Leandre Legree — both checking in at more than 240 pounds — has combined for 1,784 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground. Goose Creek is averaging 7.5 yards per carry and 365 yards rushing per game.

Candor feels the Goose Creek offense is clicking on all cylinders. He says his team’s best chance of winning on Friday night is for that offense to continue to score points and eat clock.

“We have to score when the opportunity presents itself because Fort Dorchester will likely score some points,” Candor said. “They’re a really good, explosive football team on offense. The quarterback doesn’t play like a sophomore. For us to have a chance, we have to execute offensively. The pressure is on our offense to not only move the football and eat the clock, but also to score if we get close.”

WHO: Goose Creek (9-3) at Fort Dorchester (13-0)

WHAT: Division I-AAAA state semifinals

WHERE: Bagwell Stadium, Fort Dorchester HS

WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m.