Batesburg-Leesville played perhaps some of the best football in school history last season.
But it also had the worst luck, dropping region and state title contests in the last minutes, something coach Phil Strickland hopes to profit from as the 1999 season begins Friday at Lexington.
"We're trying to forget about it and set our sights on tradition and playing for another title," Strickland said. "That's last year. We've been in the title game three times in the '90s, lost two, won one, and the kids really just look forward to building on this tradition."
In the Region 5-AA championship game and the Class AA state title game, Batesburg-Leesville was leading with less than a minute to play before disaster struck.
The Panthers led Swansea 10-6 and were on the Tiger 5-yard line with time winding down for the region title. But the center snap was bobbled, and a Swansea defender scooped the ball up for a 95-yard winning-touchdown return.
"They won by a wing and a prayer," Batesburg-Leesville coach Phil Strickland said of the 13-10 loss. "It kind of woke us up a little if not a lot. We knew after that, that anything could happen in the playoffs and that we couldn't take any lead for granted."
Victories over Silver Bluff, Kingstree, Hanahan and Barnwell had the Panthers in the Class AA state finals for the third time in the 1990s. The first came in 1992 when Batesburg-Leesville fell to Swansea. They claimed the title in 1995 against Barnwell.
Holding a 7-3 lead late in last season's title game, lightning struck again as Emerald executed a hook-and-lateral with less than 40 seconds to play for a 43-yard touchdown and a 9-7 victory.
"We knew they were going to run it, but they just executed it perfectly and we missed a tackle," the eighth-year head coach said after completing the season 11-4 overall and 4-1 in Region 5-AA.
The Panthers lose North-South all-star linebacker Travis Gates, who had 151 tackles last season and will play at Georgia Military this fall. Other linebackers lost are Twayne Bell, who earned 75 tackles, and Ellis Cannon, who registered 69 tackles.
Senior defensive end Josh Eargle (118 tackles, eight sacks) is back, teaming with senior defensive guard Gary Adams (101 tackles, 15 for losses, six sacks).
On offense, 6-foot-3, 170-pound senior quarterback Brian Shealy returns after passing for 1,098 yards and 11 touchdowns. Senior running back Quinton Langford, who rushed for 1,182 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, is also back. They are two of only four returning starters on offense.