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, 1992, 1995, 1998
State Runner-Up: 1997, 2013
Playoff Appearances: 29
Upper State Final appearances: 11
No 3A team was more feared in the ‘90s than the Daniel Lions. With five appearances in the state championship game, and four titles, the Lions were the epitome of a football powerhouse. Under the direction of head coach Allen Sitterle, Daniel maintained a consistent culture of success over the course of the decade.
It’s a tradition that’s carried on even past its heyday in the previous millennium as the Lions returned to the title game in 2013.
What made Daniel’s run in the ‘90s so impressive, was the fact that it maintained success in one of the most competitive regions in the state, Western 3A. They had to compete with Seneca, Wren, Berea, BHP, and others.
No team in the region had ever won a state championship, until Daniel. The Lions set a standard for smaller schools on how to compete with the bigger schools in a classification and come away victorious.
Allen Sitterle Era (1990-2005)
Sitterle came to Daniel in 1990 after successful stints at Charlotte’s Independence High School and Spartanburg. Daniel’s attendance area comprises three towns: Central, Six-Mile, and Clemson. All three are very different, and Sitterle realized he would have to approach this unique situation with the goal of making sure everyone was on the same page.
“The first thing was trying to unify those three groups together when [I] got there” said Sitterle. “We won close games, tight games, but those kids started to believe that they could win.”
Coming off a losing season in 1989, the 1990 Lions gained the confidence they needed in Sitterle’s first year and finished 13-1, losing in the 3A upper state final to Camden. But the foundation was in place for an epic run for the remainder of the decade.
1991/1992 State Championships
The 1991 and 1992 Daniel Lions couldn’t have been any different, yet the end result was the same. Both teams made their way to the state championship in contrasting ways. In 1991, it was hard to imagine a team capable of beating the Lions.
Daniel went 15-0, rarely facing their own football mortality along the way.
“That may have been the best team I’ve ever seen in high school,” said Sitterle. “They never trailed in a football game. Fifteen weeks, never were behind…they could’ve coached themselves and won.”
Their wins weren’t just handed to them, though. Sitterle credited their quality of competition, even during non-region play, as being a big factor in giving the Lions the fuel to go undefeated.
“We scrimmaged Byrnes every year, we scrimmaged Asheville every year, really good football teams,” said Sitterle. “And they started to believe and then they started to beat those teams.”
The 1991 Daniel team was loaded with talent as well, headlined by quarterback Shawn Young. With Young under center, the Lions finished the regular season 11-0, and a matchup against Fort Mill in the first round of the playoffs was on the horizon.
The Lions offense didn’t put up the gaudy numbers it had recorded up to that point, but their confidence didn’t waver. Daniel defeated Fort Mill, 10-0, behind a great defensive performance. Though the defense had been overshadowed at times throughout the season, its importance was on display early on during their run to the title game.
“Our defense was a dominant defense, they just didn’t get to play very much and the offense got all the publicity,” Sitterle said.
The defense came through once again in round two as the Lions looked to exact revenge against Camden. The game went as expected with two talented groups going head-to-head. Points were hard to come by for both teams, but Daniel managed to edge the Bulldogs, 10-7. It may have been ugly, but they continued to find ways to win.
Daniel took on Greer in the upper state final, beating the Yellow Jackets convincingly, 24-7, propelling them to the state championship game in Columbia.
In the 1991 Class 3A State Championship, Daniel battled Stall, a team that was nearly a decade removed from its last playoff appearance. But their run through the lower state was no fluke, and the Lions knew they’d be tested at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Daniel maintained control for most of the game, never falling behind, in a 24-14 win. The Lions had captured the program’s first 3A title, and its first state championship since 1966. But with several players leaving, it was going to be a challenge to repeat in 1992.
“They were a really good football team, and that started the tradition,” said Sitterle.
So going into 1992, there was uncertainty as to whether or not they could make another championship run, especially with an almost entirely new lineup.
“We lost everything, just about,” said Sitterle.
And on top of getting used to a new group, the team had to face high expectations before and during the season.
“There was pressure for those kids to win,” said Sitterle. “The community was excited about it…and I think as the years went on the pressure got higher, higher, and higher.”
The ‘92 Lions were made up largely of a solid group of players, instead of loaded with all-state talent. But that formula seemed to work just fine for Sitterle’s program. In fact, it’s something of a point of pride for the coach as he looked back on that team.
“You talk about having superstar players, but we had a lot of good high school football players,” said Sitterle. “They cared about the community, cared about their school, and had a lot of pride.”
That care for each other, their community, and the school they represented, along with a desire to prove doubters wrong, proved to be all the motivation this squad needed.
They weren’t quite as accomplished as the team they followed, but finished the regular season 10-1 and, ironically, they were more dominant during the postseason with a 47-7 rout of Southside followed by a shutout win over Camden, 29-0.
They were back in the upper state championship.
Daniel faced York in the semifinals, beating the Cougars, 31-14, cementing their return to Williams-Brice Stadium.
The Lions marched into Columbia with a chip on their shoulder. The team was determined to show that despite the loss of so many great players, they were a team capable of reaching the pinnacle of high school football.
The 1992 3A state championship game pitted Daniel against Cheraw. The Lions defense again showed up in a big way, holding the Braves to just 14 points as Daniel won, 24-14. While the ‘91 team seemingly rolled through the opposition with ease, the ‘92 team had earned each victory as a collective.
It was one of Sitterle’s more fond memories during his tenure.
“I had great coaches at Daniel, our staff was really good,” said Sitterle. “And they had to work really, really hard that year. But they all put the time in and got the job done. That was a little sweeter title because we had to work for it.”
After winning two state titles in a row, Daniel stumbled in ‘93. They had a winning record, going 6-4 in the regular season, but failed to reach the postseason in the tough climate of a competitive region.
“We lost four games by, I think, nine points total,” said Sitterle. “We couldn’t get over the hump at the end of games like we had before…When I got there, the first thing somebody told me was ‘you’re not going to win a state title in the Western 3A because [the conference] was so tough. Everywhere we went was packed. The rivalries were just intense then.”
In ‘94 the team rebounded, going 10-0 in the regular season, but ultimately fell in the quarterfinals to Clinton, 29-0. Despite missing the title game in the face of increased expectations, Sitterle said not only is he proud of how those teams fought, he’s proud that they didn’t attempt to lighten the schedule in hopes of making a return to the championship.
“We didn’t back off of people,” said Sitterle. “We were a school that was barely 3A, we were playing the Gaffneys, Spartanburgs, Dormans. Every year we played top teams.”
A mix of young, promising talent, and a culture established, boded well for the program moving forward.
1995 State Championship Run
In 1995 Daniel had a slew of emerging talent on the roster. Quarterback Antwan Black, running back, Javis Austin, and receiver, J.J. Johnson, rounded out a star-studded group of skill position players. The offensive line featured a dominant duo in established star, junior Kyle Young, who eventually went on to play at Clemson, and up-and-comer, Kevin Breedlove, a future Georgia Bulldog.
But what defined this team more than anything, was speed. A lot of it.
“We had four guys that were legitimate 4.4 [40-yard dash] guys,” Sitterle recalled. “We could run that year…coach Wilson, our defensive coordinator one time said ‘get one of those long drives,
we need to rest the defense.’ And I said ‘I can’t. We’ll score quick. We can’t stop this speed.’ And we could break things all the time.”
Black was the centerpiece of the offense. His athleticism seemed to be unmatched in every game they played. He went on to play for North Carolina after his days at Daniel.
“He was just a great athlete in every way,” said Sitterle. “I think he played every position at North Carolina up there: quarterback, wide receiver, defensive back, safety. He played everything.”
Behind Black, and a fantastic run game, the Lions steamrolled the competition en route to a 9-1 regular season finish. Their only loss came against Gaffney.
The offense clicked on all cylinders in the first round of the playoffs, as Daniel defeated Southside, 50-14. The next several weeks, however, were more challenging.
In the second round, the Lions narrowly beat Clover, 21-19. Then the following week, they beat Newberry, 21-16. The close games continued. Daniel edged rival Seneca in the upper state final, 20-16.
There was no question this group had been battle tested ahead of the state championship game.
In the Class 3A title game, Daniel took on Strom Thurmond, a well established program that had consistent postseason success in the years leading up to the big match-up.
It was close for most of the game, and Strom Thurmond, trailing late, had a chance to get back in the contest. But on a fourth-and-one play, the Daniel defense came through, not only with a stop, but forced a fumble in the process. That play all but sealed the win for the Lions.
“Strom Thurmond was really good that year,” said Sitterle. “It was a great matchup, but we played well on both sides of the ball. Our defense was tough when they had to be.”
Daniel had made it back to the top of Class 3A, and with some key pieces returning, planned to stay there.
With Austin, Breedlove, and Young coming back, the offense was poised to be a dominant run team in ‘96. And it was a great year for the ground game. Austin ended up finishing his career with 34 touchdowns that year, tallying 67 touchdowns in his career, which is 23rd all time in the state. His success came behind two fantastic lineman, and Young was named Mr. Football as a senior in 1996. But through all of the promise and success, came some bumps in the road as well as they finished the season 9-4 with a loss to Strom Thurmond in the 3A upper state playoffs.
“It was a transition year, in a way, because we had a couple really good players, we had a bunch of young kids,” said Sitterle. “And once again it was a year we had to adjust to a lot of things.”
As was typical for Daniel, the transition and adjustment was brief. And the Lions made their return in 1997.
Daniel ended the 1997 regular season with an 8-2 record. A 66-14 win over Greenville set the stage for a great playoff run bringing them back to the state championship game after a one-year hiatus.
Daniel ran into a dominant Fairfield-Central team in the ‘97 title game, but the Lions did have their opportunities to overtake the Griffins.
“Early in the game we had a chance at the lead, but missed a field goal,” said Sitterle. “We had a chance before the half to score and they knocked the ball down in the end zone. And then we had a play where our (defensive back) had an easy interception. He goes up and the ball hit him in the hands and it bounces over the top off his hands, over the head, and there’s a Fairfield guy standing behind him for the touchdown.”
Daniel lost to Fairfield-Central, 26-9, as the Griffins won a second straight 3A state title.
“Fairfield really was loaded, they had college players everywhere,” said Sitterle. “That was definitely the motivating factor for ‘98.”
1998 State Championship Run
Daniel came into 1998 with purpose, much like in ‘92 and ‘95. They were hungry to make it back and for many on the team, none of them had experienced a state championship win.
But things got off to a rough start as Daniel found itself at 1-2 through the first three weeks.
“We started off the year really bad,” said Sitterle. “We made some adjustments and all of a sudden we started winning again.”
After that 1-2 start, Daniel never lost again. The finished the season 8-2, and trounced Greenville in the first round of the 3A upper state playoffs, 59-0.
Close wins over Clinton and Fort Mill brought them to the upper state final against a familiar foe, Fairfield Central. This time the Lions got the best of the Griffins as Daniel won, 41-13, securing its spot in the championship game.
In the 3A state championship game, Daniel went up against Manning, a matchup many saw as
being very even. It had the makings of a true gridiron battle.
The Monarchs, however, got off to a great start in the opening half, with a considerable lead over the Lions. But Sitterle recalls the moment things began to turn around.
“Right before the half we were getting beat real good,” said Sitterle. “And we went down and made a big play on a punt. We actually blocked one of their guys into the football, which gave us a chance to recover it, and we scored. All of a sudden we were in the game again.”
Daniel scored on the opening possession of the second half and then took the lead on linebacker Billy Grandy’s pick-six early in the fourth quarter.
Late in the game, were on the precipice of putting it away. A touchdown would have put the Lions ahead by ten, and when they scored it appeared the victory was sealed. But a holding call brought them back, and they settled for a field goal to make it 34-27.
Manning had an opportunity to tie it, but the Daniel defense held with Tyrell Young knocking down a would-be touchdown pass in the endzone, and they won by that seven point margin. The Lions secured their fourth state championship in eight years.
“It was a great, great game,” said Sitterle. “One of the best state title games ever.”
What began as a team with hopes of reaching the ultimate glory in high school football, Daniel, under coach Sitterle, forged a dynasty.
“You talk about a conference that hadn’t won a state championship ever, and we won four in the 90’s,” said SItterle. “It was a great decade of football for us, just an unbelievable run that we had.”
The Later Years
Daniel had more success under Sitterle going into the 2000s, posting a winning record through 2005, when Sitterle left the program for other opportunities in the Atlanta area as well as back in the Palmetto State in the midlands.
Randy Robinson, a long time assistant under Sitterle, was next in line to lead Daniel.
They went 4-7 in his first year as head coach, but the following season the Lions were back in contention. Robinson led Daniel to double-digit wins in six of the next seven seasons, including a 14-win season in 2013. Their only loss came in the state championship game.
In a tightly contested contest in the 2013 3A state title game, Myrtle Beach and Daniel matched each other score for score. But in the final seconds, the Seahawks nailed a field goal to propel them to victory, 24-21. It was a tough blow to the program, which had fought so hard to return to the title game after 15 years.
It was up-and-down for the program over the next few seasons, and Robinson left to guide Berkeley High near Charleston in 2016 after compiling a 97-31 record with the Lions.
Daniel has returned to form in recent years, winning eleven games in each of the last two seasons. And with former Lions linebacker Jeff Fruster leading the Lions, they’re hoping to make it to the 15th game of the season once again.
For as competitive a region as Western 3A was, Daniel stood out among the rest, elevating the program to new heights in the 1990s. Four state championship wins, and a fifth appearance in the decade, made them the most dominant 3A team overall in the decade in the Palmetto State.
With a legendary head coach in Sitterle, who ranks fifth all-time in the state with four championships, Daniel hung its hat on teamwork, and a unified goal. In the process, they created a culture that has lasted well into the new century, best exemplified in a return to the title game in 2013. The Lions have remained in the conversation year in and year out.
Sitterle said it best when summing up the program.
“The base of our team was kids who just were playing high school football for the fun and pride of playing high school football. That’s what it’s really all about.”
A perfect fit for a Top 10 program.
Pete’s Top 10:
Daniel Football record since 1990 (Courtesy of SC Football History & MaxPreps)