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To be the man...

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By Travis Jenkins

At the conclusion of every win, in the post-game huddle, Chester Coach Victor Floyd yells “great day to be a Cyclone” and assistant Ricky Campbell adds on “What does Ric Flair say?” drawing the wrestler’s famous “wooo” from the team. Another Flair quote seems to apply to Friday’s state championship matchup with Dillon…”to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.”

With Chester at 14-0 and Dillon at 12-0 (they had two games cancelled because of Hurricane Florence) there is no question that the state’s two best AAA teams are battling for the state crown. Dillon, though, is the defending state champion. In fact, the team has won five titles (some in AA, some in AAA) in the past six years and eight in the last 10. They are a dynasty and stand in the spot that the Cyclones, who last played for state in 2008 and last won it in 1963, want to occupy.

“Having that experience plays a big part,” said Dillon Coach Jackie Hayes. “These guys have never experienced anything but playing for a state championship.”

To get there this year, Dillon obliterated its regular season competition, with its closest game being a 49-20 victory over Lumberton (N.C.). Until last week, only Lumberton and Loris had managed to score in double-figures against the stout Wildcats defense. The team did get a serious tussle last week in the lowerstate championship game from Wade Hampton, but rallied from a third quarter deficit to claim an 18-13 victory. That win put the Wildcats exactly where they want to be.

“We want to be playing in that last game,” Hayes said.

Dillon operates primarily from a spread look on offense and does have an efficient passing game, but is more of a power running team. They make use of a blocking H-back at times. Junior Tyquan King is strong, downhill runner and quarterback Jay Lester is capable of making plays with his feet and arm. He had two touchdown passes in the second half of last week’s win over Wade Hampton. Floyd thinks that sophomore receiver Ahmari Huggins-Bruce is the best wide receiver his team will have faced this year. Senior Corrian Wright is another big-time weapon, as he was on the receiving end of Lester’s two scoring tosses last week and had 122 yards receiving. As always seems to be the case, Dillon is big and very physical up front.

Defensively, the Wildcats use 3-4 and 4-3 looks. Against power running teams like Chester, they often stick with a 3-4 but walk the outside linebackers up to give a 50 look. Senior linebacker/defensive end Shamar McCollum (a Wake Forest commitment) will be the best defensive player Chester has faced this season, Floyd said.

“They’re fast and physical on D. It’s 11 hats to the ball,” Floyd said.

Dillon’s defense hasn’t given up much of anything to anybody in 2018 (yielding just over six points a game), but is especially tough against the run. In 12 games, the Wildcats have surrendered one rushing touchdown and that came last week to a Wade Hampton team that operates from a veer attack on offense. So something obviously has to give this week, since Chester has 4,630 yards and 62 scores on the ground on the season. Floyd made some adjustments to his team’s offense this season, largely scrapping the wide-open, more passing-oriented spread attack of the past three years for more of a power ground game. That was simply a matter of making the most of his available talent, he said. Chester doesn’t have a lot of wide receivers this year, but has a talented stable of backs, all five starting offensive linemen from last year (including three seniors) two tight ends and a 260-pound H-back. Pair that with a physically gifted, 210-pound quarterback in freshman Zan Dunham who is still learning the intricacies of passing the ball but can flat run over people, and it just made sense to go with a ground and pound approach. The team’s ability to run the ball has helped on several fronts. The team still goes up-tempo and gets off lots of plays, wearing down opponents. As an example, Chester had more than a two-to-one advantage in time of possession in the first half against Union County in last week’s upperstate championship game.

“We’re a physical team up front. The offensive line represents Coach Floyd very well. We’re very dominant,” said senior Wyatt Tunall, the team’s left tackle.

That also helps keeps the defense fresh. Chester’s defense has been as good as any in the state this year, despite being a bit undersized. Floyd credited Tim Boyd, his defensive coordinator, and the rest of his defensive staff with having their unit ready to go every week. The real secret to the defense’s success is something that is hard to quantify and impossible to measure, Floyd said.

“You don’t get to measure 40 times and vertical jumps, you’ve got to take what walks in the door,” Floyd said. “You can’t measure heart. We have players with big hearts. We don’t have any SEC guys, they just roll up their sleeves and go to work.”

That has shown itself time again, as the Cyclones defense stonewalls offenses against whom they often give up 50 pounds a man. They are good against the run and pass, they pressure quarterbacks without having to blitz from every direction and they force lots of big, impactful turnovers. The offense has a knack for answering scores and for converting turnovers into quick touchdowns. Floyd thinks senior leadership (he has 11, nine of whom start) is a big part of that. When his seniors were freshmen, he promised them that good things would happen if they stuck with him and endured some hard times early.

“As freshman, they got thrown into the fire. Our numbers went down, a lot of kids quit because I’m pretty demanding in what I ask of them on a regular basis…I told all these guys if they persevere through the hard times now, take their lumps, get punched on the chin, you’ll grow up and get better,” Floyd said.

Floyd and Chester have been here before. During his first tenure at the school, back in 2007, Chester advanced to the state title game but fell 14-12 to Wilson. There is one key mistake that was made during that run that he says hasn’t been repeated.

“We allowed the moment to be too big for us. It overwhelmed us. I might’ve backfired on us,” he said.

Helpfully, assistant coach R.J. Canty was a member of that 2007 team (and the ’08 team that lost to Myrtle Beach in the state finals). Floyd said he has talked to players, younger ones especially, about what they can expect. Floyd said he knew in the spring the team could be good and he intentionally lined up a rugged pre-season schedule (Union County, Ridge View, Hough) and non-region slate (Rock Hill, Columbia (Ga.), Fort Mill and Lancaster) to “max his team out” and help prep them for moments like they will face now.

Hayes said he was impressed with Dunham and Chester’s offensive line. On defense, he said he liked with the way the Cyclones get to the ball. He said Chester actually reminds him of his own team. Floyd said Dillon has a skilled signal-caller, lots of offensive talent and an excellent defense. The two best teams in the state will play for the state crown…the only question is who will emerge as “the man.”

Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. Friday at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.