COLUMBIA — Nearly five weeks ago, Union County closed out its regular reason with a loss that put its season in limbo and landed it in a three-way tie for third place in Region III-AAA.
Head Coach Steve Taneyhill wasn’t even sure the Yellow Jackets would make it into post season.
But they did.
Week after week, Union County traveled to stadiums across the upper state, crushing championship hopes for team after team.
Now, for the first time in the history of Union County High School, the Yellow Jackets are playing for a State Championship.
“To make this kind of run and see the players come together like they have has been huge,” said Floyd Lyles, Union County High School principal. “All day at school, the students are excited and the community is excited. This is what you play for, this is what it’s all about.”
On Monday, Taneyhill joined Hartsville Head Coach Jeff Calabrese at a conference table at the S.C. High School League Office in Columbia to field questions from members of the news media.
Both coaches spoke about their respective seasons, outlining the paths that led to the Class 3A finale.
The road for Union County was littered with five losses during the regular season before entering the playoffs as a No. 3 seed. In post-season, the Jackets went on a tear, upending four teams on the road.
“I think we’ve experienced everything — highs and lows,” said Taneyhill. “If you look at our games, we were ‘in’ every single one, our kids have had to play 48 minutes every week. All these great teams that were ‘unbeatable’ and we went to their stadium and pulled out wins. Our run here in the playoffs has been pretty amazing, if you think about it.”
Union County made some personnel changes before Week 9 on defense that paid dividends.
“We couldn’t get off the field against Clinton because they controlled the clock and we couldn’t get a stop,” said Taneyhill. “So we changed the package a little bit and put more speed on the field.”
While Union County switched gears late in the season to earn itself a bid to State, Hartsville rolled through the lower part of the state finishing the season 14-0.
The Red Foxes defeated their first three playoff opponents with an average margin of victory of 31 points. Last week, down by three late in the fourth quarter, Hartsville made a defensive stand on the four-yard line and took it 96 yards the other way for a game-winning touchdown.
“We’re only here because we played halfway decent defense and I’m sure Steve will tell you the same thing,” said Calabrese. “We’ve both been able to score a lot of points since we’ve been around. The reason we’re still playing is because the defense is playing well.”
Taneyhill agreed, adding that his team has developed a confidence that was lacking before playoffs began.
“I think we’ve gotten better and better every week,” said Taneyhill. “You hope as a coach to have good players and good kids. All of us coaches are up here today because we’ve got some good players, and in some cases we’ve got great ones.”
Senior captains Jared Fowler, Keiston Smith, Kalay Jones and Trayvon Davis accompanied Taneyhill to Columbia on Monday. Fowler, a linebacker for the Jackets, said the team has gotten comfortable playing away from home. Saturday should be no different.
“We’ve been on the road for four weeks,” said Fowler. “The nerves should be gone.”
The 2012 Union County football team already made history when it earned a spot in the State Championship. Union’s last appearance in the final was in 2002 before the consolidation of Jonesville and Lockhart.
The senior captains concurred that it was a huge accomplishment to have made it this far but they are not satisfied just yet.
“We don’t want to just be the first team to go to State,” said Jones. “We want to be the first team to win.”