WINNSBORO — People say that one year can make quite a difference, but when it comes to the AA state championship, there is not much difference from last year’s game.
The Griffins of Fairfield Central (13-0) will once again square off against the Wildcats of Dillon (11-2). Both losses for Dillon came after giving up 27 points. Once on Aug. 23 to Mallard Creek (N.C.) and then on Sept. 27 to Marlboro County. That was the last time Dillon lost, and since have won eight straight games.
Head coach Jackie Hayes believes the Marlboro County game was a turning point in the season.
“I think that was a real gut check for us,” he said. “I think from an attitude standpoint that was a real changing point in the season because our guys began to realize that they needed to make a change if they wanted to go on a run.”
The Wildcat defense has pitched eight shutouts in 13 games this season, and only allowed six points per game. An opposing offense has scored more than a touchdown just twice this year — Mallard Creek and Marlboro County.
In three playoff games, Dillon has only given up six points and have outscored their opponents 129-6.
“We do pride ourselves on playing defense,” Hayes noted. “Every year we try to put our best players on defense and hope that our defense can control the game.”
Joe Blue leads the team in tackles with 85 and Fairfield Central head coach Demetrius Davis knows Dillon is a team that puts defense first.
“They’re a very good football team,” he said. “I give a lot of credit to Jackie (Hayes) because his defense looks like he took Joe Blue and copy and pasted him 10 times because they’re all that good.”
Other Dillon defenders that Fairfield will have to be on the look out for include Ja’Monte McGill — team high seven sacks — and Randall Davis, who has five interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
In 21 seasons, Hayes has won 83 percent of games by compiling a 249-50 record. During that tenure, he has won four state championships — 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2012.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of success and now our town expects us to do it year after year,” Hayes stated.
This year, Hayes’ defense will have to deal with senior quarterback DeAndre Belton.
“He (Belton) is outstanding and Fairfield’s offense goes as he goes,” he noted. “In fact he (Belton) reminds me of guys like Freddie Solomon and Cam Newton.”
After catching wind of those high praises from Hayes, Belton said he was honored but he couldn’t take all the credit for his success.
“It feels great to be compared to those guys,” he stated. “But a lot of the credit goes to my teammates because they helped get me to this spot and have given me confidence.”
Losing in last year’s state title game and watching Dillon celebrate was a learning experience for Belton.
“It motivated us a lot because we wanted that outcome (to celebrate with a win),” he said during this week’s press conference. “It hurt (to lose) and going through that has really pushed us as a team to work even harder.”
Both coaches agreed that field position would play an important role in the game, which could be decided by solid special teams play.
“That (field position) will dictate our philosophy and what we do offensively,” Hayes said. “In a game of this magnitude its going to be huge. I think Fairfield does an outstanding job with their special teams play and we have our work cut our for us.”
Davis emphasized the importance of good field position and echoed some of Hayes’ comments.
“It is going to be especially important against Dillon because their defense is so tough,” he noted. “If you look at the percentages of how often a team can drive 80 yards and score it is very low, so field position will be crucial.”
This week in practice, Davis and his staff have avoided any hype of playing in a state championship game to their players.
“Honestly this week’s practices have the same as the ones before,” Davis said. “We decided to do what we’ve done all year and just treat this game as another road game.”
Davis didn’t classify this week’s preparation as tougher or easier going into the state championship game.
“I think we just need to be consistent by doing what got us,” he noted. “Sometimes when coaches reach this point they change things up and that can throw your kids off. No game is bigger than the next one and this one here just happens to be the next one and the last one.”
Davis said the top things for any Fairfield Central fan to know about Dillon is that they’re big, fast and well coached. His main concerns going into tonight’s game is being able to score against defense, being able to stop Anthony Blue and executing the special team’s game in order to keep positive field position.
Anthony Blue accounted for a team high 2,026 total yards (1,510 rushing yards, 198 receiving yards, 318 return yards) and 29 touchdowns.
Fairfield Central is playing in the final game of season for the second year in a row. At the start of the season, Davis knew that if his team took care of business it would have a chance to reach the state title game again.
The last thing he will tell his team before they take the field tonight was boiled down to one word — finish.
“It (finish) is something we’ve been saying all year and now is the time to get it done,” Davis said. “They (Griffin players) just need to relax, have fun and play as hard as they can and at the end of 48 minutes we’ll look up at the scoreboard and see where we are.”