The 7 Sports Team is counting down the 10 best high school football programs in the area during 7 Sports Director Pete Yanity’s 30 seasons covering high school football on Channel 7. State titles, overall wins, and dominant eras were taken into account when compiling the list of Pete’s Top 10.
State Titles: 1991, 1996, 2010, 2011, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 State Runner-Up: 2000, 2002, 2012 Playoff Appearances: 30 Semifinal appearances: 16
The Abbeville Panthers have been atop the 2A or 1A ranks for several years, but in this past decade, there was nobody better. Under Jamie Nickles, the Panthers secured six state championships, including a state record-tying four in a row, during the 2010s. Only one other area team since 1990 (Byrnes) has as many titles in a decade, putting Abbeville in elite company.
The program also won two of its program’s state championships in the ‘90s and made two state title game appearances in 2000 and 2002 while also reaching the upper state final three additional times.
Over the course of the past 30 seasons, Abbeville has not missed the postseason.
Dennis Botts created a culture of success at the school. It’s been continued by Nickles.
1990s (Two State Championships): The Dennis Botts Era
Dennis Botts came to Abbeville in 1989 after several seasons at Calhoun Falls, where he registered a 41-34 record.
Botts struggled in year one, as the Panthers failed to win a single game, going 0-11. But the turnaround came sooner than expected. They made a stunning reversal by winning 10 games in 1990, falling in the first round of the playoffs, and built on that the following year.
In 1991, the Panthers went 10-1 in the regular season. Botts’ mentality of stingy defense complemented by a steady run game on offense contributed to the sudden improvement of the team, and exemplified what it takes to win in the 2A upper state playoffs.
Abbeville took it to Liberty in the postseason opener, winning 44-7, and came back with another big performance against Mid-Carolina, allowing just nine points. Chesnee proved to be a tough opponent in the upper state championship, but the Panthers edged the Eagles, 32-29.
Led by running back Leomont Evans, a future Clemson Tiger and NFL player, their offensive prowess was on full display in the title game against Swansea, as Abbeville torched the Tigers, 50-28, to capture the program’s first state championship since 1981 and third overall.
The Panthers had moderate success over the next few seasons, with one losing campaign in ‘93. They rebounded in ‘94, however, and ended their run with a trip to the upper state third round. The Panthers lost to a talented Lamar team in 1995, but for the second year in a row they fell by just one possession. They were on the cusp of making that return to the title game.
1996 was a magical season for the Panthers. Week in and week out, Abbeville put on a show that rivaled any school in the state regardless of classification. The team averaged 42 points per game, while allowing fewer than seven points per game on defense. It was as balanced a team as Botts had during his tenure.
Their success on offense was predicated on the performance of a slew of running backs. Botts employed several different playmakers in the backfield, keeping everyone fresh and forcing defenses to adjust to a variety of skill sets. Senior fullback Keele Goodwin was the focal point of the Panthers’ attack, with quarterback Rio Grant aiding the ground game. Defensively, Diko Tinch plugged the lanes up front, and was a dynamic run stopper.
With big wins over Saluda, Mid Carolina, Chapin, and Ninety Six, to name a few, Abbeville cruised to the Region 3-2A title, finishing the regular season undefeated.
They began the postseason with two straight shutouts against Chesterfield and Woodmont, then handled Columbia, 48-13, in round three. After beating Mid Carolina, 35-6, in the regular season, the Panthers were even tougher on the Rebels in the 2A upper state final, winning 41-0.
Abbeville faced Allendale-Fairfax in the 1996 state championship game on their home field, which was the last time 2A and 1A teams were host to title games as they joined the other classifications with title games at neutral sites beginning in 1997.
The Panthers were without two of their top running backs, but Grant stepped up, finding the end zone twice on the ground and another time through the air. The Panther defense remained stingy, holding the Tigers to under 70 total yards. Abbeville won a blowout, 35-0, to capture its second state championship of the decade. The win also completed an unbeaten season, the program’s third.
“Fantastic group of kids,” Botts said after the win. “They deserve this. I promise you there’s a God in heaven and justice in this world.”
The Panthers were firmly in the hunt for the remainder of the ‘90s, returning to the 2A upper state championship game two out the next three seasons. But it wasn’t until the new millennium that they returned to the15th game.
2000s (Two State Championship Appearances)
After a 7-3 regular season in 2000, Abbeville made its way back to the 2A state championship game by showing resilience on the playoff trail.
After shutting out Woodmont in game one, the Panthers barely eked out a win over Central of Pageland, 28-25. Another dominant performance followed as they toppled Chapman, 35-7, to advance to the 2A upper state championship for the fourth time in five years. There they took on Batesburg-Leesville in what can only be described as a defensive battle. An Abbeville field goal was the only score on the board as the clock reached zero, and the Panthers punched their ticket to Columbia.
Silver Bluff and Abbeville headlined the 2000 2A state championship at Williams-Brice Stadium. A back-and-forth contest went to the Bulldogs as Silver Bluff defeated the Panthers, 28-21.
As they had become accustomed, Abbeville made it back to the 2A upper state final in 2001, but in a rematch of the 2000 semi-final bout, Batesburg-Leesville got the best of the Panthers in a 20-7 victory.
In 2002, the Panthers were poised to make another deep run. They went 9-1 in the regular season, and coasted to the 2A state championship game, recording two postseason shutouts and outscoring opponents, 118-17, in four upper state playoff games.
Abbeville took on Carvers Bay in the 2A championship game in what was the Bears’ third year of existence. In another tightly contested battle, the Panthers fell just short of a win as their foe from Georgetown County took home the trophy with a 21-19 victory.
The Panthers had a shot at reaching the title game again in 2003. After a 6-4 finish in the regular season, Abbeville beat Edisto, Pendleton, and Woodruff on its way to the 2A upper state final against Batesburg-Leesville, in what had become a common occurrence between the two teams. Batesburg-Leesville, however, beat Abbeville by double digits to advance to the state championship. While it was the team’s final loss of the season, they endured an even bigger loss just weeks later.
In December, Botts suddenly passed away after suffering a stroke. Just like that, the man who had built Abbeville into a winning program, was gone, leaving behind a wife and three children. Botts died as Abbeville’s winningest coach, and created a legacy that is carried on to this day.
A former Abbeville player, and Botts assistant, took over in 2004.
The Jamie Nickles Era (2004-Present)
Jamie Nickles was named the new head coach of the Abbeville Panthers that winter. After helping win a state championship with the Panthers as a player in 1981, and as an assistant under Botts during the 1996 run, Nickles brought with him an understanding of what it took to win a title at Abbeville.
“It’s a dream come true to coach here,” said NIckles.
In his first season as head coach, Nickles led the Panthers to a 6-4 regular season finish, and a trip to the the third round of the 2A upper state playoffs.
The Panthers were ousted in either the first or second round the next two seasons, and in 2007 they made it back to the third round. For the remainder of the decade, Abbeville continued to make the postseason, but struggled to put together a deep playoff run until 2009, when they played for their first 2A upper state championship since 2003. They lost to Central of Pageland, but the writing was on the wall that the Panthers were on the verge of breaking out in a big way.
“Those were good years as far as growing as a coach,” said Nickles. “We knew we had a good team coming back, we just needed a few things to gel.”
2010s (Six State Championships)
Going into the 2010 season, Abbeville dropped from 2A to Big 1A in a new South Carolina High School League reclassification, and saw instant success.
“We knew we wanted to dominate 1A and that’s what our mindset was,” said Kennan Gilchrist, a standout outside linebacker and future NFL player. “We felt like no team should be able to come close.”
After a loss in the opener to Chester, and a three-point win over Lincoln County of Georgia in game two, nobody really did come close to defeating Abbeville for the remainder of the regular season. Behind a prolific run game featuring fullback La’Quavas “Quay” Watt, the Panthers put up 378 points through ten games. They finished 9-1, scoring over 37 points per game, and allowing just 13.5 points per contest.
Abbeville dominated week one of the playoffs, beating Blacksburg, 56-7. They shutout Calhoun County the following week. In the Big 1A upper state final, the Panthers edged Lamar, 20-12, to return to a state championship game for the first time since 2002.
In the Big 1A state championship game at Benedict College in Columbia, Abbeville battled Bamberg-Ehrhardt. Both teams had experienced championship droughts spanning nearly a decade.
But the Red Raiders were no match for the Panthers’ run-game.
In the opening half, defense stole the show as both teams struggled to get into an offensive rhythm, although Abbeville scored on the opening drive when quarterback Tyler Boyles found
Andrew Osbourne on a 15-yard touchdown pass.
B-E responded quickly, returning the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown. Running back Ashton Heard put Abbeville in front with a short touchdown run late in the second quarter. The Panthers once again had the ball with about 30 seconds left when Heard broke loose for a 44-yard run setting them up for a big play to end the half.
On just his second pass attempt of the game, Boyles tossed one deep to Watt as time expired, and Watt came down with it in the end zone for a 31-yard score making it 21-7, Abbeville.
The Panther defense stepped up to start the second half, stalling a promising Bamberg-Ehrhardt drive on the opening possession. And midway through the fourth quarter, another heavy dose of Watt and Heard resulted in Heard’s second score of the game, and a comfortable 28-7 lead.
The Panthers never let up, and cruised the rest of the way to a 42-13 victory. Heard recorded 230 yards on the ground, while Watt added another 168. The Red Raiders simply had no response for the relentless Panther rushing attack.
Abbeville had reached the height of high school football once again after a 14-year state championship drought.
“I always wanted to win one more for coach Botts,” said Nickles.
“I’ve been around this program my entire life, and I just remembered there was always a hunger to get back to where they were in ‘96 and we would always get so close,” said Dubie Dubose, a middle schooler at the time, who would become a state champion for Abbeville just a few years later. “And finally getting there in ‘10 and ‘11 and pulling it off, this entire community was behind us.”
In 2011, the pressure was on the Panthers to repeat. A loss to Lincoln County in week two amounted to a minor speed bump as Abbeville won their remaining games to end the regular season 9-1. They did so in an even more dominant fashion than in 2010, as the Panthers put up 408 points, allowing just 63 points, and recording four shutouts.
The Panthers posted 55 points in each of the first two playoff games in what were easy victories. But the Big 1A upper state championship game against Steve Taneyhill’s Chesterfield Rams threatened to spoil Abbeville’s hope of repeating as state champions.
In a very close game, defense reigned supreme and it was the Panthers’ unit that stepped up in the biggest moment of the game, stopping the Rams on the final drive of the game to hang on for a 17-13 win.
“We were fortunate in a back-and-forth game to win,” said Nickles.
They returned to the Big 1A title game for a second year in a row to take on Hemingway, which was making its first state championship game appearance in program history.
The Abbeville offense sputtered in the first half, but a Heard touchdown in the final 20 seconds of the half put the Panthers in front, 6-0 at the break.
After a Tiger fumble in the third quarter, Abbeville capitalized with a touchdown run from O’Bryan Wilson to improve its lead to 14-0. The Panthers defense locked Hemingway down for the remainder of the game, allowing less than 100 yards of total offense, as the Panthers won, 20-0, to repeat as state champions.
In 2012, Abbeville moved back up a class to Little 2A, and returned to the title game, going for its third championship win in a row.
“I think our best coaching job was ,” said Nickles.
With an extremely talented young quarterback in Kelly Bryant, the offense saw a resurgence.
“He fit into our offense like a glove,” said Nickles.
That year they finished the regular season 8-2, and wound up defeating Chesnee, 40-0, for the Little 2A upper state championship.
But Abbeville was no match for Bishop England and was shut out by the Battling Bishops, 21-0.
“You learn so much from the adversity of losing a state championship,” said Nickles. “We really wanted to get back.”
But Bryant transferred to Wren following that season and the Panthers had to make a major adjustment.
“I understood the move and respected it,” said Nickles. “He’s always welcome here. For the rest of his life, he’ll always have a little part of Abbeville in him.”
In 2013, after losing several key players, Abbeville dropped off to a 3-7 record, but did win its first playoff game against Saluda. They were eliminated in the second round.
2014 was a similar season, but the Panthers were starting to trend in the right direction. After falling to Batesburg-Leesville, 47-0, in the regular season, Abbeville responded with a 34-28 win in a postseason rematch.
“That’s when I said ‘hey, you can count on these kids,’” said Nickles.
They finished 5-7 overall, losing in round two once again. But the next year would amount to one of the program’s biggest single-season turnarounds, and put them on a course of dominance that was hard to envision.
Ahead of the 2015 season, Nickles made a change within the coaching staff, bringing back defensive coordinator Tony Temple from Greenwood. Only this time, Nickles moved Temple to work with the offensive coaching staff.
“They took our offense to another level, especially in the passing game,” said Nickles. “That really opened up our offense.”
But that season was anything but easy.
“2015 was a dog fight,” said Nickles.
“We had many goals set out that year,” said DuBose, who was now a senior leader at linebacker. “I mean, the first goal every year is to win a state championship, but we knew to do that we had a lot to get done first.”
Behind quarterback Joe Battle, and running back T.J. Rogers, the Panthers hit their stride almost immediately. They won their first four games, scoring 160 points in the process. And their win in Week Two over Christ Church snapped the Cavaliers’ state-record 55-game winning streak. But what followed was two straight losses to Union County and Strom Thurmond.
“We just made a decision as a senior class that we weren’t going to get beat anymore,” said DuBose.
And they lived up to that goal. In fact, since that loss to Strom Thurmond, Abbeville is 62-2-1 heading into 2020.
“We just kept getting better, and we stayed healthy,” said Nickles.
They went 8-2 ahead of the Little 2A upper state playoffs, and toppled Buford, 41-7, in the opener. They were matched-up with Batesburg-Leesville again, a team they had beaten handily in the regular season. But Nickles wanted to impress upon the team that the postseason is a different animal, especially against an experienced program.
“I remember telling my kids on Thursday ‘tomorrow night will be a classic’,” Nickles recalled.
It lived up to the hype. Both teams went toe-to-toe in the quarterfinals, with Abbeville coming out on top, 31-28, and went on to beat Saluda in the upper state final to advance to the championship game at Benedict College.
Abbeville took on Silver Bluff in a rematch of the 2000 state championship game. The Panthers had beaten the Bulldogs, 28-6, in the regular season opener.
“That was probably our best week of practice,” said DuBose. “I just remember how focused we were. We were all determined. We weren’t going to go up there and lose again. We were bringing that [trophy] back with us.”
Battle got the scoring going for the Panthers on a quarterback keeper in the first quarter as Abbeville built a 14-7 lead going into the second period. That’s when Battle connected with Ventray Belton on a touchdown pass to move their lead to double digits, 20-7.
It wasn’t long before the two hooked up for a touchdown once again. Abbeville took a 26-7 lead into the half.
The Panthers kept coming after the Bulldogs in the third quarter. Battle ran into the end zone for what was his third ground score of the game, extending the Abbeville lead to 32-7. Battle was dynamic both in the rushing and passing attack, as he found Junior Rapley at the end of the third quarter for yet another touchdown.
Silver Bluff tacked on a few more scores later in the second half, but the deficit was too large to overcome. Abbeville claimed the Little 2A title with a 45-27 victory.
“Our kids just took over the game and basically dominated from start to finish,” said Nickles.
“It was just a culmination of all the years of hard work I had been putting in with those guys since we were seven-years-old,” said DuBose. “ We had all played together since we were kids…yeah it was bittersweet, it was the last time we were ever going to get to play together, but we won our last game. Not many people can say that.”
In 2016, the South Carolina High School League added another classification, 5A, removing the “little” and “big” designations for 2A, which was no longer a split class. Without Battle at quarterback, the Panthers relied on their running backs to carry the weight. Freshman Cortney Jackson and Rogers were the focal points of the Abbeville offense. The defense remained stout, especially with current Pitt Panther defensive end Nate Temple anchoring the d-line.
They jumped out to a 3-0 record to begin the season, allowing just seven points during that stretch. They stumbled in Week Four, however, settling for a tie at Lincoln County, 7-7 (the result of a rule in Georgia that does not require overtime for games against out-of-state opponents).
“That tie kind of set our mindset for the rest of the year that ‘look, you got to play week-in-and- week-out,’” said Nickles. “I think that’s what we did.”
Abbeville rattled off six wins in a row to close out the regular season at 9-0-1.
The Panthers made it back to the upper state final after out-scorcing its postseason opponents 126-27. Next up was Saluda.
“Saluda was always there,” said NIckles. “They had a good running back and had some good teams. And we were lucky to beat them in a knockdown dragout.”
Abbeville won, 21-16, advancing to a state championship game for a second year in a row.
The Panthers matched up with Batesburg-Leesville in the 2A title game.
B-L got out to a quick lead in the opening period, taking a 14-3 lead. But Jackson brought the Panthers back, scoring three touchdowns in the second quarter to give Abbeville a 24-21 lead.
In the third quarter, Abbeville kept their foot on the gas, putting together two long, 10-play drives. Quarterback Jamie Gray made it 31-21 with a touchdown plunge midway through the third and Rogers added a 14-yard touchdown run at the end of the period to make it 38-21.
The Panthers rushed for nearly 300 yards in the contest, and held the ball for nearly twice as long as B-L, winning its second state title in a row, 44-21.
In 2017, Abbeville had all the pieces to make it back to the championship game. But they faced adversity early on after Jackson was lost for the season due to a torn ACL. Rapley, now a senior whose father Monoleto starred on the 1991 championship team, stepped in.
“He could absolutely play,” said Nickles. “He became the leader and the focal point of that football team.”
Rallying around Rapley, Abbeville continued to win, extending its unbeaten streak to 29 games. That streak was snapped, however, in a Week Seven loss to Hartsville, a 4A school.
Still, the Panthers responded with three straight wins to end the regular season. The defense held opponents to 14 points or less in six of their 10 regular season games. They continued that in round one of the postseason, with a 42-6 rout of St. Joseph’s. But the road quickly became tougher.
They defeated Chesterfield, 61-35, but then narrowly defeated Cheraw, 14-7, before matching up with Saluda for the 2A upper state final. Abbeville topped the Tigers, 20-15, to advance to the title game.
All season long, the Panthers had been used to holding teams to minimal points, but their offense rarely experienced a shortfall, until they ran into Bamberg-Ehrhardt. Through the first 45 minutes of play, the score was 0-0.
Then near the start of the fourth quarter, Jerrald Manigault returned an Abbeville punt 79 yards for a touchdown to break open the scoring. With how difficult it was to cross the goal line that game, it appeared the 7-0 advantage would be enough to bring home a title for the Red Raiders.
“We punt to them, they run the punt back with about six minutes left. It’s bedlam,” said Nickles. “They got us, man…how are we going to score?”
But the Panthers answered on the next drive, though they almost committed a huge mistake. At the goal line, Rapley fumbled the ball into the end zone. Luckily for the Panthers, JaBryan Sanders was there for the recovery to tie the game at 7-7.
The Abbeville special teams unit, responsible for B-E’s only points, came through for the Panthers when they needed them most. Quadarius Guillebeaux stripped the ball from returner Deszman Porter, and recovered it giving Abbeville possession. Moments later, Rapley ripped off a 26-yard touchdown run to take a 14-7 lead with just over three minutes left.
The Panther defense hung tough, and J.D. Moore provided the dagger with an interception down the sideline, securing victory.
“Man, what a game,” said Nickles. “Coach Crosby came up to me after that game and said ‘man, that’s experience’.”
That made it three in a row for Abbeville, but they still had more left in the tank.
It’s hard to imagine a team topping back-to-back 14-win seasons resulting in state championships, but the 2018 Abbeville Panthers did just that.
In the first two weeks they outscored opponents 108-0. And they didn’t let up the remainder of the season, finishing 10-0 ahead of the playoffs.
The Panthers rolled past Andrew Jackson, North Central, and Pageland Central en route to the 2A upper state final. There, they edged Southside Christian, 28-21, to secure a trip to their fourth-straight state championship game.
It was a battle of the unbeatens as Abbeville faced Barnwell in the 2A state championship contest.
The Panthers drew first blood when quarterback J.D. Moore found an inside lane and bounced outside on his way to a 22-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. But on their second possession they were forced to punt, and Barnwell returned it for a touchdown to even the score at 7-7.
But Abbeville was too difficult to stop on the ground. Jackson showed off his speed shortly afterward on a 37-yard touchdown run to put the Panthers back in front, 14-7. Jackson was back for more in the third. An inside spin and a stiff-arm contributed to his second touchdown scamper of the night as they went up by two scores.
Barnwell threatened toward the end of the half, however. Deep in Abbeville territory, they went to the air on third down. But the Panthers’ David Cobb intercepted the pass and took it 92 yards the opposite way for a deflating touchdown to put Abbeville up, 28-7, at the break.
The Abbeville passing attack came alive in the second half with two long touchdown passes from Moore. Moore connected with Ja’Bryan Sanders down the seam for a 37-yard score to go up 35-7, and then after a Dominick Washington touchdown run, found Sanders again on a 68-yard score as Abbeville soared to a 48-14 win over Barnwell.
“Those guys winning state championships now, I watched them play in recreation,” said Gilchrist, who now plays in the CFL for the Toronto Argonauts. “It is like watching your kids grow up…it just lets me know the A-train keeps rolling.”
The Panthers kept it going in 2019, finishing the regular season 10-0 and advancing to the upper state final. But there they ran into Saluda once again, although this time the Tigers got the best of the Panthers, winning 32-38, ending Abbeville’s 35-game winning streak and dousing the hopes of winning what would be a state record fifth straight title.
With eight state championships since 1990, Abbeville is tied for the most titles on Pete’s Top 10 High School Programs list. Behind some notable playmakers, and two renowned coaches in Botts and Nickles, the Panthers have sustained a winning culture for three decades, and are in prime position to continue that going into the 2020s.
Nickles’ six championships ties him for third most in South Carolina history as he enters his 17th season as head coach of the Panthers.
Despite a couple of losing seasons, and some bumps in the road, the Panthers have managed to make the postseason every year since ‘90, and have reached an upper state final 16 times during that span, the most by any team on the list.
Pete’s Top 10:
Abbeville Football record since 1990 (Courtesy of SC Football History & MaxPreps)