And then there were three.
The Lowcountry representation in the South Carolina High School League state football playoffs is down to three final teams. All three will play for lower state championships on Friday night, hoping for the opportunity to compete for state titles next weekend in Columbia.
Fort Dorchester will play in the Class AAAAA lower state championship game against defending state champion Dutch Fork in Columbia. Berkeley travels to Hartsville for a Class AAAA lower state final against the defending lower state champions of a year ago, while Baptist Hill will be at home, hosting C.E. Murray High School in the Class A lower state tilt.
Class AAAAA – Fort Dorchester (13-0) at Dutch Fork (12-1)
The two AAAAA powerhouses are meeting for the fourth time in two years, settling the lower state title for the second straight year. Dutch Fork is the defending state champion and beat Fort Dorchester in the lower state game last December to sweep two games on the season.
The two teams met earlier this season in a non-region game with Fort Dorchester exacting a little revenge with a 41-25 road win. The Patriots are 40-2 since 2015 with both losses coming to Dutch Fork. Friday will be their fourth consecutive appearance in the final four.
“They (Dutch Fork) have improved a lot since we played them in September, which is expected because they are so well-coached,” Fort Dorchester head coach Steve LaPrad said. “I think we are twice as good as we were back then. I really believe that. We have really improved a lot over the course of the season and I feel like we’re peaking at the right time. I don’t know how we will play on Friday night but I like where we are.”
Dutch Fork averages 47 points per game offensively while limiting opponents to only 12.2 points per game. Opponents average only 217 yards per game while the balanced offense produces 427 yards per outing.
Dutch Fork’s biggest weapon is senior Bryce Thompson, one of the state’s top prospects who lines up at running back and receiver. Thompson has accounted for 1,225 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns while adding 533 receiving yards and six scores. He also has returned a punt, a kickoff and a fumble for touchdown this season for a season total of 36 touchdowns.
“He’s a really good football player,” LaPrad said. “They use him all over the field and he’s a great player.”
Sophomore Ty Olenchuk has taken over at quarterback after an early season platoon system. Olenchuk has 1,349 yards passing and 16 touchdowns. Freshman Jalin Hyatt has 798 receiving yards and 10 scores.
Anchoring Dutch Fork’s defense are linebackers Josiah Commander (110 tackles) and Alex Smith (101 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, 11 sacks). End Kendrick Allen adds 24 tackles for loss and nine sacks.
It will be that trio on defense that looks to slow down the state’s most explosive offense at Fort Dorchester. The Patriots are averaging 55.3 points per game this season and have scored 170 points in three playoff games.
Senior quarterback Dakereon Joyner, headed to South Carolina in January, has passed for 2,183 yards and 30 touchdowns while playing barely a half in most games. He also leads the Patriots in rushing with 881 yards and 18 scores.
Senior Jonathan Parker and sophomore Kalil Jenkins have combined to rush for more than 1,600 yards and 28 touchdowns. Seniors Raquan Simmons (50-757, 12 TD) and Justin Williams (47-866, 14 TD) lead the receiving corps.
Junior linebacker Davon Gilmore is the leading tackler defensively with more than 120 total stops. The secondary is among the state’s best, led by DeAngelo Knight and Dazjon Casto. Defensive tackle James Middleton is a North-South all-star selection.
Class AAAA – Berkeley (12-1) at Hartsville (12-1)
Without question, the numbers go against a Berkeley team that has won 12 consecutive games. The Stags have never won (0-5) at Hartsville’s Kellytown Stadium and Hartsville enters the game having won 47 consecutive games on their home field. Berkeley’s last visit to Hartsville, in the 2014 state playoffs, resulted in a 55-0 loss.
Berkeley head coach Randy Robinson, 21-4 in two seasons at Berkeley, has the program back in the lower state finals for the first time since 2009.
The game pits two high-scoring offenses that go about their business in different ways. Berkeley has more balance offensively and averages 434.5 yards per game. Junior quarterback Eric Tuttle has thrown for 2,249 yards and 22 touchdowns. Junior running back Keshawn Wicks has rushed for 1,915 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The most explosive player offensively is junior receiver D.J. Chisolm. The 5-9, 160-pounder already has set school records for receptions (63), receiving yards (1,049) and receiving touchdowns (13). He also has three punt returns for scores and four rushing touchdowns.
Junior Dervon Pesnell is another threat in the passing game with 42 catches for 691 yards and eight touchdowns.
Hartsville operates offensively out of the double-wing with a focus on the running game. Junior Tiyon Evans averages 12.5 yards per carry, totaling 1,696 yards and 24 touchdowns. Evans also is the team’s leading receiver.
Berkeley’s defense has been very good in the playoffs. Seniors Xavier Watson and Blake Jenkins-Williams dominate at the line of scrimmage. Linebackers Jake Dunn and Gary Stephens are key leaders in the middle, while Tre Morrison and De’Montrey Singleton anchor a good secondary.
Hartsville has lost 26 fumbles this season but has not thrown an interception. The Red Foxes have 19 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries defensively. Sophomore end DeMonte Capehart is one of the state’s top underclassmen prospects with 22 tackles for loss this season. Rod Gattison has six interceptions in the secondary.
Class A - C.E. Murray (11-1) at Baptist Hill (10-1)
Baptist Hill has reached the lower state championship game for the first time in school history. Head coach Marion Brown says his team should be excited but also must remain focused.
“We are very thankful and blessed to have this opportunity,” Brown said. “It’s a really big deal around here and everyone is excited. We want our kids to enjoy the moment. It’s something we’ve been working towards since last May. At the same time, we cannot let our emotions control the game. We have to play with focus and we need to execute. We’re playing a very good opponent.”
C.E. Murray upset second-ranked and lower state favorite Hemingway last week. The War Eagles are led by USC verbal commitment Darius Rush, a receiver, defensive back and return specialist. Quarterback Elijah Bey has thrown for more than 2,000 yards and 26 touchdowns.
“They want to run the football first so it’s important we stop the run,” Brown said.
Anchoring the effort defensively for Baptist Hill is senior linebacker Dee’ke Lang, who has 123 tackles and 11 sacks this season. Senior Tyler Scott has nine interceptions in the secondary.
Baptist Hill senior quarterback Corey Fields guides a Bobcats’ offense that averages more than 300 yards passing and 20.7 yards per completion. Fields has completed 73 percent of his attempts for 3,050 yards and 40 touchdowns while also rushing for 744 yards and eight touchdowns.
Fields has a bevy of receivers and effectively spreads the ball around. Jay Burnell has 49 catches for 900 yards and eight touchdowns while Richard Bailey has 48 grabs for 1,299 yards and 18 touchdowns, averaging 27.1 yards per catch. Rashad Maxwell averages 21.9 yards per catch, totaling 702 yards and 16 touchdowns on only 32 receptions.