Originally created 12/03/99

Fans rally for championships



WILLISTON, S.C. -- Football fever hasn't spread through this Barnwell County town with such a frenzy for two decades.

That's how long it's been since Williston-Elko High School won a state championship in football -- 1980, when players on the present team were not yet born. So there's more than a little excitement that the Blue Devils, on a 13-game winning streak, are going for the Class A title against undefeated Timmonsville on Saturday at 5 p.m. in Columbia at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Wide receiver and defensive back Lee Dicks, 17, figures he's got at least 22 relatives piling into cars to catch the biggest game of his high school football career.

"It's a dream come true," he said, "except it's not final yet. It's just not complete."

Banners over lockers in the halls proclaim "Devils Pride" for the Upper State champs, soon to be -- if all goes well -- the best team among small South Carolina schools. Quarterback T.J. Martin's locker is covered with mementos of games that got the Blue Devils this far, and other players' lockers look much the same.

Coach Charlie Combs says they put their first game, a loss to Barnwell, behind them and never looked back. He's trying to treat this game like all the rest but understands how different it is; Mr. Combs has helped coach two other teams to state championships -- James Island in 1974 and Manning in 1988.

"I'm undefeated in state championship games," he said Thursday. "It looks good on paper."

It looks good on the field, too, say fans all over town as they talk over sweet tea at lunch, by the gas pumps and in line at convenience stores.

"The big difference," the coach said of Saturday's game, "is that we won't have a game next week. All season these guys have been getting on the bus after wins and saying, `Who have we got next week?' This time, it's not going to happen."

Thirty miles away at Aiken High School, where the 12-2 Hornets are pumped up for tonight's game and a possible state title in their AAAA Division II, some senior players such as center David Hayes, 18, know it's the last time they'll dress out.

"It's exciting," he said Thursday. "I'm glad we've accomplished what we have to come this far. But I know I have to leave it behind me on the field."

Aiken won the state championship in its big-school division in 1992, when today's seniors were in the fifth grade.

Fans from decades back are flocking into the school office to buy tickets for tonight's game at 8 against Greenwood, also riding a 12-2 season.

Both schools will have big pep rallies today, and at Williston, win or lose, the football team and cheerleading squad are going to be grand marshals at the town's Christmas parade Sunday.

By Thursday afternoon, folks were starting to get itchy.

Ordinarily, Rachel Alsept would be pondering what to wear to sing the national anthem before a football game, as she's set to do Saturday night before Williston-Elko and Timmonsville play.

But it's not a problem for the 17-year-old student-body president -- she'll be in her Blue Devil mascot costume, minus the huge rubber head with rows of gleaming white teeth. (She peers out from inside through the gaping mouth while cavorting on the sidelines, "pretty much making a fool out of myself.")

The costume will be new. She and her mother are making one that actually fits the petite senior -- metallic blue, with a sparkling silver cape.

"It's been a little hard to concentrate on school this week," she admitted. "In every class, we've been taking a five-minute break to chill out and talk about the game before getting back to work. We're just praying for the team that they'll keep their heads on straight, not get hurt, and make sure they understand that it's a state championship game, but in the end just another game."

While Principal Chip Atkins ordered "flowers for the world" and 400 pompons for cheerleaders to hand out at the big game, he couldn't help thinking of his own days as a coach. The Williston-Elko principal took seven golf teams to state championship matches -- two won and five were runners-up -- and had a basketball team come in second for a state title 10 years ago.

"It's a pretty good feeling," he said. "Everybody's excited. The whole town's excited. It's been building all season."

At Aiken, Principal Joe Padget also found the atmosphere all week was "wild -- what else can I say?"

"But it's a good wild. The kids are excited, there's a lot of school spirit, and we're having a good time."

"It's good for the community, good for the school, good for the kids and good for the fans," said Coach Carey Johnson, who was an assistant coach when Aiken's squad swept AAAA Division II seven years ago.

Defensive tackle Michael Jordan, 17, said playing for the state title is "a lot of pressure; we're getting a lot of support from students and teachers. They're saying since we got this far, we'll do fine."

Reach Margaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895.

Game schedule

Class AAAA, Division II

Greenwood vs. Aiken, 8 p.m. today

Class A

Williston-Elko vs. Timmonsville, 5 p.m. Saturday

Location:

Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia. From Aiken, take Interstate 20 east to Columbia, exit onto Interstate 26, go straight into Columbia and turn right on Assembly Street. Stadium is across from State Fairgrounds.

Gates Open:

7 p.m. today;

10 a.m. Saturday

Tickets:

$6 today; $6 Saturday in advance, $8 at gate. Advance tickets sold at participating schools.

Television:

South Carolina Educational TV (WEBA-Channel 14 in Allendale) will show all games live.

Parking:

Allowed in fairgrounds parking area for $5 per car and $10 per RV or bus.