Marriage often unites people whose paths might never have crossed otherwise. That's not the case tonight when Batesburg-Leesville travels to Barnwell for the Lower State championship.
Warhorse coach Mac Wier is married to Panther coach Phil Strickland's first cousin. Strickland's mother, Jean Kennedy, and Wier's mother-in law, Sarah Stackley, are sisters.
The relationship goes back further than their coaching tenures but that will be set aside with a trip to the Class AA title game on the line. Wier said after kickoff it's all business, there's no room for family emotions.
"There ain't none," Wier said. "We want to win."
The coaches have squared off two previous times in the playoffs, with Batesburg-Leesville winning both. The Panthers defeated the Warhorses 35-0 in the 1995 state championship game. The next year Strickland's squad knocked off Wier's team in the state quarterfinals.
Whatever difficulties the coaches have preparing their game plans is nothing compared to the turmoil created for the family members. Debbie Strickland, Phil's wife, said family loyalties are stretched but they've found creative ways to compensate.
"They'll take turns sitting on the Batesburg side for one half then on the Barnwell side for the other half," she said.
Reaching the state semifinals was expected of the No. 1 Warhorses, who have won 27 of their last 28 games. However, the Panthers were supposed to be in a rebuilding year with just five returners back from last year's team.
Barnwell came up just short in the championship game last year, losing 21-19 to Pageland-Central. One team will return to Columbia next week to play for another state crown while the other will begin preparing for next season.
"We'd hate to lose but we'd hate it if they lost," Mrs. Strickland said. "There's maybe a little more pressure on Mac since Phil's team won the last two times."
Regardless of the outcome, coach Strickland said family ties will always be the strongest. He said tonight's result will not affect the relationship he has with any of his family members. After the game, Strickland's parents will join the Wier clan at the home of the Warhorses coach.
"There's a lot of love in that household," Strickland said of the Wier family.
Each of the five South Carolina High School League championship games will take place in Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.
The Class AAAA Division II game is scheduled for next Friday at 8 p.m. The Class A game is set for 11 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 5, followed by the Class AAAA Division II game at 2 p.m.
The Class AA title game will kick off at 5 p.m., with the Class AAA game set for 8 p.m.
Eleven local players will finish their prep careers Dec. 12 at the North South All-Star game at Doug Shaw Memorial Stadium in Myrtle Beach.
The annual all-star event pitting the top seniors in the state against one another will feature players from eight different area schools. Silver Bluff's Nathaniel Mahoney and Derek Rogers, Barnwell's Marcus Robinson and Andre Smith, Batesburg-Leesville's Travis Gates and Jeph Watson will join Strom Thurmond's Erwin McCain on the South team.
The North team will feature Shamus Coleman of Wagener-Salley, Torrey Murray of McCormick, Brian Elam of North Augusta and Steven Williams of Blackville-Hilda. Wagener Salley coach Robbie Randall will assist the North team while Batesburg-Leesville assistant Heyward Bouknight will assist the South squad.
Jimmy DeButts is a sports writer for the Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at 706-823-3221.
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