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A (Green) Sea change

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Floyd's current and former teams making history

By Travis Jenkins

Next weekend, Victor Floyd hopes to see his team playing in Columbia for a state championship. Actually, he hopes to see both of them playing for state championships.

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Floyd is, of course, the head coach of the Chester Cyclones, who will play in the AAA upperstate title game tonight for just the third time in the last 55 years. His blood runs Chester red and blue now, but as a player, Floyd wore the gold and black of the Green Sea-Floyds Trojans, who tonight will appear in the Class A lowerstate title game for the first time in school history. The two schools are separated by 177 physical miles and two classifications, but share a common thread in Floyd and in the history-making nature of their deep playoff runs.

 

The (not so) good old days

 

Before Floyd arrived at Chester for his first stint as head coach in 2004, the program had compiled the most non-winning seasons of any school in the State of South Carolina since the 1963 state championship season. There had only been one playoff win in the 40 years since and three seasons with records of over .500. After going 2-9 in year one, he put together 6-5 and 7-4 seasons before taking the Cyclones to the AAA state title game in 2007. He left for Brunswick High in Georgia the following year, but returned in 2015, taking a team that had five wins in two years to back-to-back 9-3 seasons (after one rebuilding campaign) and now to 13-0 for the first time in the 100-year history of Chester football. That success is well known and documented, but fans may not realize that as a player, Floyd helped Green Sea-Floyds to its two most successful seasons ever in the mid-‘80s. During his sophomore season in 1984, the Trojans went 8-4, which was the best mark in team history to that point and for more than 30 years afterwards.

“We lost to Blackville-Hilda in the second round by a touchdown and they went on to win state,” Floyd said.

Every member of that team remembers how close they were to an even deeper and more memorable run. Keith Elliot is a volunteer assistant for Green Sea-Floyds (his son Bubba is the starting quarterback) and was a teammate of Floyd on that 8-4 squad.

“Blackville-Hilda blew everybody else out that year. We lost a close one to them,” he remembered.

During Floyd’s junior year (and Elliot’s senior season), Green Sea-Floyds was moved up to the AA ranks. Despite competing against larger schools, what would stand for three decades as the golden era of Trojans football continued.

“That put us in a region with North Myrtle Beach, Loris, Mullins, Lake View and Latta. It was a good football region,” he said.

The team went 8-2 against that rugged slate, but unlike now, when nearly everyone who puts on helmets and pads advances to the postseason, only the top two finishers in each region made the playoffs at that point.

“Unfortunately, we lost the wrong two games,” Floyd said. “We didn’t make the playoffs.”

And that was it. From then until last year, 7-4 with a first round playoff loss in 2007 stood as the best Green Sea-Floyds could do.

 

Culture change

 

Donnie Kiefer came to Green Sea-Floyds as head coach last year after a long and successful stint as a high school coach in North Carolina. Very little has changed in the unincorporated hamlet of Green Sea since Floyd’s playing days. There is a school, a truck stop/meat market (Sugar Bears) and a Dollar General. Green Sea is in Horry County, but bears no resemblance of any kind to the constantly growing and bustling Myrtle Beach on the coast 40 miles away. Green Sea is rural, isn’t near much of anything and is comprised mostly of farmland. Cotton and tobacco are the crops of choice and those may have played a role in the football team’s struggles over time. Floyd said when he played, there weren’t summer workouts or 7-on-7 camps as there are now for most teams, since nearly every high school aged boy worked cropping tobacco. Jed Blackwell is now the prep sports editor for the Spartanburg Herald Journal, but began his career in 1996 covering Horry County prep sports. The first game he was paid to cover was at Green Sea-Floyds. He remembers then-coach Charles Elvington bemoaning the fact that his team might come together late in the campaign but was likely to struggle early on. Blackwell asked him why.

“Well, I haven’t had many this summer and we haven’t done much. A lot of mine have families who farm tobacco. They’re busy helping their daddies crop tobacco and getting things ready for the auctions. When I get everybody back, we might be alright,” he remembers Elvington saying.

There were some benefits to the work.

“I asked about getting them in football shape. (He said) ‘Ain’t a conditioning drill ever invented that beats cropping tobacco when it’s 100 degrees,’” Blackwell said.

The school does have a nice, new field house, but most of the accommodations are sparse, as is the case for most small, rural schools. On Wednesday, Kiefer didn’t want to practice on the game field, wanting to give it one more day to dry out for this Friday’s game, so the team went through drills on a practice field that is embraced on most of three sides by woods and has only two small lights with four bulbs each. That leaves a good portion of the surface dark when the sun goes down.

“Offense, come over here,” he said, walking towards those two light poles. “We need some light.”

When he arrived, he found talent to work with, but also found the need for foundational changes after the team went 6-6 in his first season, a success when measured against the program’s history.

“I told the guys 6-6 was not something to be satisfied with. That should be considered a down year. I told them if they were OK with mediocrity, they needed to do something else,” Kiefer said.

Floyd faced some of the same issues when he arrived at Chester. It wasn’t just about Xs and Os, it was about changing the culture and the mindset. Rules and standards for conduct and behavior and academic expectations were set and those who chose not to meet them were invited to do something other than play Cyclones football. In the first year of each of his tenures, he promised young players who stuck it out that there would be a payoff down the road. Neither coach has a big roster or much depth, both have players that contribute on both sides of the ball, so mental and physical toughness are a key. Both want their players competing in other sports during the off-season, but at a school of just over 300 students like Green Sea-Floyds, there isn’t a full compliment of sports offered. So, for those who don’t play basketball or baseball, Kiefer has a year-round conditioning program.

“Our speed and strength program are second to none and the kids have really bought in,” Kiefer said.

Both teams have athletic defenses that fly to the football and employ physical, power running games on offense. Floyd has run more wide-open, spread attacks in the past, but with three seniors on the offensive line, a stable of backs, big blocking tight ends and H-backs and a 220-pound freshman quarterback who runs over defenders, he has opted more for the blunt force trauma approach on offense this season. Players on both teams have embraced the style. Chester senior left tackle (and sometimes defensive lineman) Wyatt Tunall said recently he loves the physical aspects of the game and just likes hitting people. Green Sea-Floyds senior right tackle and defensive end Tyson Sorrell brings the same mentality to the field, saying he was glad when the team scaled back the passing attack in place when he was an underclassman.

“We are not a finesse team. We hit you in the mouth. We want to be a physical team. If we lose five yards on a play, we feel like we’ll get 10 or 15 on the next carry to make up for it. We want to impose our will on people,” he said.

 

Getting over the hump

 

Green Sea-Floyds made the playoffs each of the past two years and actually secured rare postseason wins (over Military Magnet in 2016 and Scott’s Branch last year). Two years ago, though (the season before Kiefer arrived), they were blown out by C.E. Murray. Last year, they lost in the second round to eventual lowerstate champ Baptist Hill 33-24, a team that regularly scored more than 50 points a contest and blew out nearly everyone they played before falling to Lamar in the state championship game. It was while watching film of that state final contest that Sorrell knew his team was close.

“I felt like that could have been us playing Lamar. We made some mistakes against Baptist Hill. I felt like we should have won that game. We’re a similar team to Lamar. They have a physical defense, a good line and good backs, like we do,” he said.

So Sorrell said he and his teammates “bought in” to what Kiefer and his staff were preaching. The results of an offseason of work and attention to details paid off in 14-6 overtime win over neighboring Loris early in the season. As with many neighboring schools, Green Sea-Floyds and Loris are longtime rivals. That point is hammered home inside Sugar Bears, which sells everything from automotive parts to chicken wings and sits right across S.C. Highway 9 from Green Sea-Floyds High. On the wall of the store’s men’s room, a colorful (or off-color, to be more exact) two-word message makes clear how folks in Green Sea feel about Loris. That 14-6 win, though, was the first for the Trojans in the series in 34 years.

“We’d lost to them too many times,” said sophomore nose guard Xavier Edwards.

The Trojans also notched a rare win over the powerhouse Hemingway program. They trailed that one late 21-14, but scored a touchdown with three seconds to play.

“I knew we were going for two,” Sorrell said.

“I knew coach was going to call a great play. I knew the line would stay on their blocks and our running back would keep his legs moving,” Edwards said.

The play was successful, giving the Trojans a 22-21 win. Since the playoffs began, they’ve also delivered some payback to C.E. Murray (64-26) and Baptist Hill (44-16).

Chester, likewise, had to overcome a couple of long-time nemeses to get to 13-0. The third game of the season was against Rock Hill, which Chester had not beaten since 1991. While Floyd has kept the ball mainly on the ground this year, he’s told his team there would be times they’d have to show some balance, and that contest against the AAAAA power was it. Quarterback Zan Dunham had his best game throwing the ball in a 36-14 blowout. Once Chester got to 9-0, all that stood between them and a perfect regular season (something not even the 1963 state champion or the ’07 or ’08 upperstate champion teams accomplished) was bitter rival Fairfield Central. The Griffins had won nine straight games against Chester, including in each of the past two years when the Cyclones had leads and generally outplayed the Griffins. Last year, the Griffins scored on a Hail Mary play as time expired in the first half on a play enabled by a clock malfunction. Two years ago, Fairfield Central rallied behind what looked like a near-impossible catch on a fake punt and an odd spate of turnovers from a Chester team that had only turned the ball over a handful of times all year. This year, Chester lost a fumble at the one going in, lost Dunham for most of the game with an injury and gave up a touchdown on the final play of the first half. Floyd said those plays would have been too much to overcome for some past teams, but the 2018 edition is different. They outgained Fairfield Central 123-4 in the fourth quarter on the way to a 34-14 victory, a region title and a number one playoff seed.

 

A season interrupted

 

Chester and Green Sea-Floyds mirror one another in many ways and there are common threads woven through the successes of both, but their situations aren’t identical. While Chester is unbeaten, the Trojans went a full month this season without a win. That had nothing to do with injuries or the quality of opponents. They didn’t lose a game from September 8 until October 5…they didn’t actually play a game at all. They weren’t in school for the majority of that time as the area dealt with the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. Lucas McDowell, a junior center, said there was a lot of wind and rain as the storm actually rolled through, but the real trouble started in the following days as the abundance of rainfall statewide started making its way downstream. The Lumber and Little Pee Dee Rivers converge in nearby Nichols and the flooding as those and other waterways overflowed their banks was catastrophic. In low lying areas of Nichols and Green Sea, there is still standing water more than two months later, almost a means of Mother Nature marking her territory. McDowell said the flooding didn’t happen in one big gush, it slowly crept its way towards his house. He and his family were helpless to do much other than sit and watch.

“You could see it coming down the highway,” he said. “All you could do is wait on it.”

His house was flooded and damaged to the point that he and his family still haven’t been able to move back. Kiefer kept tabs on all his players, making sure they were safe as the waters surged.

“That was rough,” Sorrell said. “Not being here and not being with my teammates was tough. As soon as I could, I drove to people’s houses to make sure they were OK.”

Edwards said he worried about his teammates (with whom he says he has a family vibe), but kept up with how they were doing on Snapchat.

“We were mainly talking about football,” he said.

The main thrust of those conversations was how badly they wanted to get back on the field. After four long weeks they finally did so, with only four days of practice to prep. No one was able to get to the school to work out during the flood, so Sorrell said everybody was sucking wind and sore as they squeezed out a close win over Timmonsville.

“It really took about two full weeks to get back to normal on our conditioning,” he said.

Life has still not gotten back to normal for a lot of folks in the greater Green Sea community. Some left and may not come back, others are like McDowell’s family and aren’t able to go back to their homes yet. Edwards said, in part, the team is playing for those people, giving them something positive to pull for and celebrate.

“We try to give them a treat. We’ve given them a show this year. Football is one of the most important things here and we’re not going to stop. We’re going to keep grinding,” he said.

 

Tonight’s the night

 

Both Chester and Green Sea-Floyds will face tough and very similar opponents tonight. The Trojans get a rematch with a Hemingway team that started the year 1-3 but is now playing its best football under first-year coach Al Calcutt. The Cyclones play a Union County team that lost three games early before getting on a roll for new coach Brian Thompson. Luckily, both have a cheering section in the other. Elliot said it would’ve been impossible for him to know as a high school kid that a fellow high school kid (Floyd) would go into coaching, but says he isn’t surprised.

“He was a good fellow and a good person to be around and he loved the game. He was passionate about it. I’m glad Chester is doing so well,” he said.

Floyd has kept tabs on his alma mater too. This year’s team has eclipsed his own as the best in school history, but he couldn’t be happier. Chester and Green Sea-Floyds are in different classifications, so they wouldn’t meet each other for state. That leaves him free to openly root for both of his teams.

“Hopefully, I’ll get to see them play for state.”