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: 1992, 1997, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2012 Runner-up: 1993, 1998, 2011 Playoff Appearances: 30 Semifinal appearances: 15
In three different eras, under three different coaches, the Gaffney football program made consistent runs at a state championship, winning six of them between 1992 and 2012. During that span they averaged ten wins per season, toppling the most successful programs in the state.
Over their stretch of dominance, Gaffney never went more than four years between title-game appearances.
In the 1990s, it was head coach Joe Montgomery who led the program to two state championships and two runners-up.
In the 2000s, Phil Strickland was at the helm, and brought the Indians three titles in four years.
And in the early 2010s, Dan Jones led the team to two straight appearances in the championship game, winning one, in the program’s most recent trip.
With a legacy that stretches across each decade over the past 30 seasons, it’s best to simply start from the beginning.
The Joe Montgomery Era (1991-2002)
Joe Montgomery came to the Gaffney program in 1991 after coaching in Florida for nearly two decades. He brought experience, and a quality staff with him to the upstate, including Mike Biddix, who had been coaching in Tennessee, and Dan Jones, who had coaching ties to the program. Jones previously coached alongside Bobby Carlton, a former Gaffney coach, at Goose Creek.
Montgomery employed an option offense, and had immediate success in his first season.
Despite a slow start, he guided the team to a 7-7 overall record, which included playoff wins over Irmo and Northwestern. They made an improbable run to the Big 16 upper state championship game, but fell to eventual state champion Spartanburg.
It was clear, though, that Gaffney had a lot of potential going into the 1992 season.
1990s (Two State Titles)
1992 State Championship Run
The Gaffney Indians had a strong set of skill players in 1992. Tyrone McGill ran the option well at quarterback. And running backs Charles Palmer and Bennie Foster fit well in the scheme.
The Indians had quite the turnaround from the year before, at least in the regular season. In 1991, they went 5-6. But in ‘92, they swung that to an 8-3 regular season finish.
They were matched-up with Region 2-4A rival Dorman in the first round of the Big 16 playoffs, ousting the Cavaliers in a 21-6 victory. They beat Orangeburg-Wilkinson by nearly 30 the following week, setting up a showdown with Northwestern in the upper state final.
The Indians barely edged the Trojans, 6-3, advancing to the state championship game in Columbia.
Gaffney battled Sumter in the 1992 Big 16 Championship at Williams-Brice Stadium.
The game went back and forth with both clubs matching scores throughout. Some of the notable plays included a double pass from McGill to Levi Jeffries, who then found Terrance Smith downfield for a touchdown. McGill tacked on two more scores on the ground. Sumter was right in step, though.
The highly contested showdown resulted in a 21-21 score at the end of regulation, and the game went into overtime. The Fighting Gamecocks were first to strike, scoring a field goal on their first possession of OT. But when Gaffney got its chance, Foster found the end zone from eight yards out to seal victory for the Indians.
“It’s probably the way a state championship should be, you know, come down to one or two plays” said assistant coach Dan Jones. “We felt pretty good about it, because we were an option team and back then you started on the 10-yard-line and we felt like we had a pretty good chance.”
Gaffney was a champion for the first time since 1985. And they’d be right back the following year.
1993 State Runner-Up
Gaffney took another step forward in the 1993 regular season, going 11-0 ahead of the postseason.
McGill, in his senior season, was now an expert at running Montgomery’s triple option. He showed off his ability both in the passing game and on the ground, rushing for over 1,000 yards and reaching that mark through the air as well. He finished the season accounting for 32 total touchdowns. Defensive end Jeff Coleman anchored a defensive unit that was disruptive along the line of scrimmage. Coleman was named 1993 Mr. Football in South Carolina, and went on to play at Tennessee and then in the Canadian Football League.
The offensive explosiveness and defensive presence carried into the playoffs. Gaffney outscored the competition, 128-31, on its way to the Big 16 state championship game, including a 51-14 rout of Dorman in the upper state final.
The Indians took on another Region 2-4A rival, Northwestern, for the Big 16 Championship in what remains the lowest scoring title game in state history.
Both defenses were stellar throughout the game, but it was a special teams blunder that proved to be the difference maker.
In the first half, backed up against its own goal, Gaffney lined up to punt from the back of the end zone. Punter Charles Palmer took the snap, but fumbled it and, in an effort to salvage the play, ran out of the back of the end zone for a safety. Northwestern led, 2-0.
The Trojans took that lead late into the fourth quarter, but the Indians had one last drive in them.
McGill led Gaffney down the field behind some spectacular plays. One was a deep completion down the left sideline. Then, near midfield, they ran the option but McGill had the ball knocked loose and straight up in the air. However, Gaffney recovered and the Indians maintained possession.
Later, McGill rolled right and threw across his body over the middle into triple coverage. The pass was complete. They again avoided potential disaster on their way inside the Northwestern 20-yard line.
On fourth down, kicker T.J. White lined up a 34-yard field goal try to put Gaffney in front, 3-2. But the kick was blocked by the Trojans’ Curtis Wilmore and Northwestern hung on for the two-point victory.
It was a difficult loss for the Indians who were looking to repeat.
And equally painful was the fact that it was the second time in five years that they lost a state when holding the opposition to three points or less. In 1988, Gaffney fell to Spring Valley in the Big 16 championship game in Columbia, 3-0.
It took a few years before they were back in the championship.
1997 State Championship Run
After reaching the Big 16 upper state championship game in 1996, the 1997 Gaffney team was poised to make another run at a state championship with some quality talent, especially on offense. Quarterback Kentrell Jones was the focal point of the Indians’ attack. His athleticism and improvisational skills were often on display on Friday nights.
Jones threw 41 touchdown passes that season, tied for 11th all time in SC, accumulating nearly 3,500 yards through the air as he led the Indians to a 10-1 regular season finish.
His primary receiver, Shedrick LittleJohn, rebounded from a knee injury in 1996 to help lead a talented receiving corps, which consisted of Mal Dawkins and Terrell Kesler. That year, the Indians scored 565 points.
“We always said [Kentrell] must’ve had eyes in the back of his head, because he always had pocket presence,” said Jones. “He could feel pressure coming.”
In the first round of the postseason, the Indians topped Hillcrest, 36-21. Then got past Lexington, 37-28, in the second round. And behind Jones’ four touchdown passes, Gaffney defeated Summerville, 28-27, in the Big 16 semi-finals after the Green Wave failed to convert a two-point conversion at the end of the game. The win moved the Indians to the state championship game for the third time in six years.
Gaffney faced Northwestern in the 1997 title game, a second meeting on the season against their Region 2-4A foe and a rematch of that two-point championship game in 1993.
Instead of a low-scoring, defensive battle, the 1997 title game was a stark contrast to their previous meeting. Gaffney jumped out to a lead in the first half, only to surrender 23 points to the Trojans, led by their own potent quarterback and future Ohio State Buckeye, Derek Ross, in the second half.
But the Indians’ offense held its own throughout. Jones went 25-40 for 467 yards and three touchdowns, setting a state record for passing yards in a title game, one that still stands.
“That game, we looked at the video. Kentrell Jones had 10 or 15 super highlight plays,” said coach Jones.
And while Northwestern put up a fight, Gaffney was able to halt the Trojan rally, winning 37-30.
Gaffney basked in the glory of grabbing its second state title of the decade, and made another run at it the next year.
1998 State Runner-Up
Expectations were measured for Gaffney going into the 1998 campaign. While they did have several returnees, including the entire defensive line, they were also missing some key senior receivers as well as quarterback Kentrell Jones.
Travis Hemphill, who had been a standout defensive back in years prior, was in line to replace Jones at quarterback. Hemphill had previously served as the backup to Jones.
Gaffney finished the regular season 9-2 and continued its postseason success. They rolled past Wando and Stratford in the first two rounds of the Big 16 playoffs, and matched-up with Sumter in the state semi-finals. That proved to be a taxing contest for the Indians, who narrowly edged the Gamecocks, 35-32.
Gaffney took on undefeated Summerville and legendary coach John McKissick in the 1998 Big 16 state championship game.
Summerville had the lead on Gaffney early, but the Indians bounced back to make it 17-17 in the third quarter. The Green Wave, however, scored 14 unanswered points after that, including a controversial goal line touchdown by quarterback Nate Spearman, who appeared to be stopped short of the goal line. Nonetheless, the pressure was on Gaffney. The Indians drove over 70 yards down the field to pull within a score, though they missed the extra point.
Gaffney regained possession with no timeouts and just over two minutes remaining.
The Indians were moving toward midfield when another controversial call impacted them. Quarterback Bradshaw Littlejohn appeared to scramble out of bounds as he dragged a defender with just under a minute to play. However, the official ruling was that he was stopped in the field of play. Instead of the game clock being stopped with 54 seconds remaining, nearly 25 seconds ticked off severely hampering the Indians’ comeback attempt in the eventual 31-23 loss.
Their bid for a second-straight title came up short, but the Indians’ run of four championship appearances in seven years helped lay the building block for teams in the coming decades.
They didn’t realize it at the time, but the program was again a part of state championship game history as it was McKissick’s 10th and final state crown of his legendary career, tying him with former Woodruff head coach, Willie Varner.
In 1999, Gaffney had the makings of another championship team, and they went 10-1 ahead of the playoffs. They beat Lower Richland and Summerville on their way to the Big 16 semi-finals but fell to Stratford, 13-12. And the program suffered a significant drop over the next few years.
The Indians won just eleven games over the next three seasons, and finished 2-10 in 2002.
Following the 2002 season, Joe Montgomery resigned as the school’s athletic director and head football coach. In 12 seasons, Montgomery compiled a 108-56 record, winning two state titles with two runners-up. Those were tough shoes to fill and not many expected one of the greatest turnarounds to occur just one year later.
The Phil Strickland Era (2003-2009)
Phil Strickland was named the new head coach of the Gaffney football program in 2003, having spent 11 seasons at Batesburg-Leesville in the midlands. Strickland brought an impressive resume to the school, as he won two 2A state titles at B-L, adding two more title-game appearances, and had a career record of 170-45 with three South Carolina programs.
“Phil came in, got the excitement going again,” said Dan Jones, who remained on the staff. “And I felt like we had the kids there that could compete.”
2003 Championship Run
Excitement was high in Gaffney as they embarked on this new era, but few expected such a drastic turnaround from a two win season the year prior. They did, however, have one of the best players in the state: receiver Sidney Rice.
“We had some great athletes, and we had good leadership,” said Strickland. “I was able to have a spring practice there and, of course, one of the first passes we threw was to Sidney Rice and he caught it off his shoe laces and never broke stride, so I knew we had something special.”
In 2003, Rice, a senior, posted 77 receptions for 1,414 yards, and 14 touchdowns, and was named Offensive Player of the Year. He went on to set records at the University of South Carolina and played seven seasons in the NFL.
In addition, they had a promising freshman under center in quarterback Malcolm Long. As an 8th grader in 2002, Long was approached by Joe Montgomery and the Gaffney coach asked him to play on the ninth grade team.
“He told me that I was going to be special,” Long recalls.
There, Long was able to form relationships with the coaches and players before actually attending the school. That experience helped prepare him for the big jump to varsity QB as an official freshman in 2003. And with the team coming off of three tough years, they were chomping at the bit to become winners once again.
“”We just had a good group of kids that were hungry and they were tired of losing,” Strickland added.
“We knew that going in, with the pride and tradition that Gaffney held, we had to get it back,” said Long. “Everybody bought into the program the first day of camp. It was unreal. The feeling, the electricity, we knew then that we were going to be special.”
Gaffney went from a two-win campaign to a 10-win regular season in 2003.
They rolled through the first two rounds of the Big 16 playoffs defeating West Ashley, 49-13, and Stratford, 35-7, a team guided by Strickland’s cousin, Ray Stackley.
In the Big 16 semi-finals, Gaffney again played Summerville. The Indians edged the Green Wave, 19-16, to advance to the Big 16 Championship game for the first time since 1998.
They faced a Sumter team that Gaffney had faced seven times before without a loss.
The Gamecocks, though, had Shrine Bowl quarterback William Richardson, who tossed 29 touchdowns in his senior season. Richardson was Gaffney’s biggest test and was continuing a family tradition. His older brother, Wally (who played collegiately at Penn State), led the Gamecocks to state title games in 1990 and 1991.
The Gamecocks were on the board first, but the Indians defense helped bring Gaffney back. Running back A.J. Littlejohn scored twice after Gaffney forced two Sumter turnovers. But the Gamecocks came right back to tie it with a short yardage touchdown plunge by Myrio Toomer to tie the game at 14.
But with just over a few minutes left in the opening half, Gaffney took advantage of Sumter’s attention to Rice. They put Long out wide as the flanker, and with Rice in motion, the Gamecocks defense keyed in on the 6’4” receiver. Long took off down the left sideline, and Antonio Gaffney connected with him deep for the go-ahead touchdown.
“It was a great feeling,” said Long. “It was tough, being that wide open, to catch a pass like that in that type of environment.”
Littlejohn reached the end zone again in the second half for his third touchdown of the game. But with a 28-21 lead late in the fourth quarter, Richardson led Sumter down the field, bringing them to the goal line.
With no timeouts remaining and the clock winding down, the Gamecocks called on Richardson once again, this time to try to send the game into overtime. Richardson took the snap and had one man to beat to cross the goal line, but linebacker Jarvis Littlejohn stopped Richardson dead in his tracks at the one-yard-line.
”We put that picture all over the weight room and said ‘this is why we lift weights,’ because he stood up a 6’4”, 240 pound quarterback and bent him backwards right at the goal line. That was pretty special,” said Strickland.
Sumter attempted to run one more play, but was unable to get the snap off in time.
“Watching them try to line up and just seeing those seconds tick away, that was good. And that’s when we knew that Gaffney’s winning tradition, the pride and tradition, was back,” said Long.
Gaffney was crowned a champion with the 28-21 win in Phil Strickland’s first year with the program.
“It took a lot of pressure off of me, because coming in there were some rumblings up there about ‘what’s a 2A coach going to do up at a 4A school’,” Strickland recalls. “In my opinion, football is football.”
The Indians stumbled in the 2004 season, finishing 7-6 with an opening round playoff loss to Rock Hill, 15-14. They bounced back in 2005.
2005 Championship Run
In 2005, the Gaffney Indians no longer had Sidney Rice, but they did have a junior, Malcolm Long, who had grown to become one of the better players in the state. With Long taking snaps, they were confident they could make another run at a title.
They finished the regular season at 8-3 and faced an uphill battle on the road in the Big 16 playoffs.
After a shutout over Hillcrest in the opening round, Gaffney ran into a talented Spartanburg team
in round two, and was almost sent home. But the Indians got past the Vikings, 29-27, setting up a showdown with Dave Gutshall’s Dorman Cavaliers in the upper state championship game. Gaffney won, 35-21.
“It was a hard climb to get there,” said Strickland. “We had to beat some pretty good teams.”
Gaffney again took on McKissick’s Summerville team, complete with star receiver A.J. Green, in the Big 16 championship game.
“It was real special to get to play coach McKissick,” said Strickland.
But the first half was anything but special for the Indians.
“The first half. A.J. Green was unstoppable,” said Long. “[And] we couldn’t get anything going on offense.”
The Green Wave dominated in the opening two periods, leading 26-7 at halftime.
“I remember like it was yesterday; 30 to 45 seconds before halftime fans leaving the stands throwing tomatoes, hot dogs, soda’s, everything at me as if it was my fault. And I understood that,” said Long. “Going into halftime I had put it in my mind that whatever I needed to do to help the team win that’s what we were going to do.”
Instead of dwelling on their first-half blunders, Gaffney regrouped, and Strickland kept his message short and simple.
“His last three words before we left the locker room was ‘never give up’,” Long said. “And that’s what we did coming out in the second half. We didn’t give up.”
“We just had to calm them down,” said Strickland.
In the first half, Gaffney had turned more to the air in an attempt to dig themselves out of the early hole. But by abandoning the run game, they had created more opportunities for Summerville. So in the second half, their approach was to take it one drive at a time, and slowly chip away at the Green Wave’s lead.
That’s exactly what they did.
In the fourth quarter, trailing 26-13, running back Quinton Hemphill scored to make it 26-20 following the extra point.
But Summerville drove right back down the field, and quarterback Justin Cramer put the Green Wave back up by double digits with a goal line sneak. With a failed two-point conversion attempt, Summerville led, 32-20.
On the following drive, Long aired one out deep to the end zone, but it was intercepted by Summerville for a touchback. Now with just over six minutes remaining in regulation, the Green Wave were firmly in the driver’s seat.
The Gaffney defense forced a quick three-and-out and the Indians offense took advantage shortly afterward.
With the Indians at the Summerville 33-yard-line, Hemphill took a draw play the distance, outrunning the Green Wave defense along the way to make it 32-26. A point after attempt was good and brought Gaffney within five points.
Gaffney’s defense forced another punt, and Summerville pinned them at their own 10-yard-line. With 2:12 on the clock, Gaffney needed a 90-yard touchdown drive to secure the title.
“Coming off the sideline, coach [Greg] Lawson looked at me in my eyes and said ‘you’re going to take us to where we need to be’,” said Long.
“I could see it in [Long’s] face,” said Strickland. “We usually met on the field right before we went out and he said ‘I got this coach’.”
The drive that ensued became one of the most notable moments in South Carolina state championship history.
The ‘05 Championship Drive
Long connected with receiver Terry Barnes for a nine-yard gain to begin the drive. A short first-down completion followed. Now with roughly 1:30 on the clock, Long connected with Cameron Tate over the middle to bring them just shy of the 40-yard-line.
The Indians had one timeout left, but continued with the hurry-up offense. And the Green Wave attacked the backfield quickly, bringing down Long for a sack, and Gaffney was forced to take its timeout.
Gaffney trotted back onto the field with a plan in place. After a quick adjustment at the line of scrimmage, Long took the snap and threw left to Tyson Petty on a wide receiver screen. Petty followed his blockers and then cut inside, taking it all the way to the right sideline and out of bounds at the Summerville 25.
Fifty-two seconds remained.
But following a modest gain and then two incompletions, Gaffney faced a fourth-down-and-seven to go.
Long had plenty of time in the pocket and eventually found Barnes over the middle for the completion near the 10-yard-line. Long spiked the ball and stopped the clock with 25 seconds to go.
As the team gathered on the sidelines to draw something up, offensive coordinator Greg Lawson asked Long what kind of play he wanted to run.
“I said hitch, because they’re playing off,” said Long. “That’s what coach Lawson called and I threw it to Quinton and he did the rest.”
Lined up far left on the line of scrimmage, Hemphill had about eight yards between him and the cornerback. Anticipating a slant or fade to the corner of the endzone, the defender sat on the route, and Hemphill simply turned around at about the three-yard line to make the catch. The cornerback slipped after being faked out, and Hemphill waltzed into the end zone to take the 33-32 lead, which was the final margin of victory.
“That game-winning drive, it plays in my head all the time. It was a great feeling,” said Long. “You’ve got to make the doubters believers, and I think that’s what the 2005 team did.”
“Sometimes it’s the culture that drives you through it,” said Strickland. “And the culture there at Gaffney is, when that little G is on their helmet, they know they’re supposed to win. And they just never gave up. It would’ve been real easy to lose that game 40 something to 10.”
For the second time in three years, Gaffney was a state champion.
2006 State Championship Run
With a prominent group of upperclassmen, the 2006 Gaffney football team expected to be right back where they were less than one year earlier: in Columbia: competing for another state title.
“The senior class that year was phenomenal,” said Strickland. “It was a special group of kids, a special group of coaches, and everything just jelled. It was just one of those seasons.”
“We were a well-rounded team, and we were a family that year,” said Long. “The summer leading up to my senior year it was countless hours of extra work in the weight room, extra film study, just everybody trying to get better.”
The team followed his lead, and week after week fans had to keep asking when, or even if, the Indians would lose a game. Long was later named Mr. Football, throwing for 3,077 yards and 32 touchdowns.
“People had written him off as being Mr. Football that year,” said Strickland. “I tell everybody I’ve coached a lot of good quarterbacks, seen a lot of good quarterbacks, he’s had arguably one of the best arms I’ve ever seen. He could throw 60 yards on a dime.”
Behind Long’s arm, they cruised to an 11-0 regular season, and toppled Colleton County, 39-7 in the first round of the Big 16 playoffs.
A rematch with Region 2-4A foe Byrnes (who had won four straight 4A Division II state titles but was reclassified that season to Big 16 under a new system) followed, and for the second time that season, Gaffney got the better of the Rebels, barely edging them, 16-13, in what proved to be their toughest game of the year (a regular season win over the Rebels snapped Byrnes’ 33-game winning streak).
“We played arguably two of the biggest games, against Byrnes, in maybe South Carolina state history,” said Strickland, referring to the regular season match-up as well, which was played on a Thursday night and aired on Fox Sports regional channels.
A 26-17 win over Stratford in the Big 16 semi-finals brought them back to the title game.
Gaffney faced Irmo in the Big 16 championship game at Williams-Brice Stadium and from the start it was clear the Indians had the upper hand. After scoring on their opening drive, which included two fourth-down conversions, Long felt confident they were going to win with ease.
“I came back to the bench and told coach Lawson, ‘Hey coach, I won’t be playing in the fourth quarter in this one’,” said Long.
The defense was dominant as well, and Gaffney led, 26-0, at the break.
“The halftime speech was easy, because I reminded them what happened last year,” said Strickland. “That we came back on somebody and couldn’t let our guard down. And they came right back out and just put it away.”
Long’s premonition came true, as several non-starters got to the see the field in the state title game. When the clock ran down to zero, it read 45-0 as Gaffney completed the program’s first undefeated season since 1963.
“I love this game, and it was special to be a part of that,” said Strickland. “To have such a storied-tradition high school and be a part of that.”
Strickland coached the Indians for four more seasons, reaching the upper state championship game in 2007 and 2009. After a 76-23 record through seven seasons, and producing three state championships, Strickland announced he was leaving the program to coach at Newberry High School, where he remains. And just like that, another era had come to a close.
The Dan Jones Era (2010-Present)
Dan Jones was named interim head coach ahead of the 2010 season after serving as the team’s defensive coordinator under Strickland, and was an assistant under Joe Montgomery in the early ‘90s. But Jones had a deeper connection with the school that extended well beyond his coaching days. He played on the 1978 team as a junior and made it to the state championship game. Gaffney was undefeated that year, but fell to Irmo in the 4A title game.
They finished the 2010 season 9-4, losing to Irmo in the Big 16 playoffs. After the season was over, Jones had the interim tag removed, and was now the fulltime head coach moving forward.
“It meant a lot to me, because I’m proud to be from Gaffney,” said Jones. “The tradition and pride we have here, it does mean a lot, especially to me having played here.”
One year later, he’d have them back in title contention.
2011 State Runner-Up
Gaffney had some key playmakers returning in the 2011 season, especially quarterback Joey Copeland and receivers Quinshad Davis and Shaq Davidson.
“We had a good core group coming back, so we felt good about that group,” said Jones.
The Copeland and Davis connection was too obvious to ignore. Copeland finished the season throwing 44 touchdowns, 8th all-time in SC history, while completing 269 passes, which ranks 11th all-time in the state. Davis caught had 108 receptions, which ranks second all-time in the state for receptions in a season.
With that dynamic of an offense, Gaffney was 11-0 going into the postseason. But their offense would have to overcome some adversity the rest of the way as Davidson went down with a torn ACL at the end of the season.
But they were able to withstand the loss on offense, and scored over 30 points each game on their way to the title game, outscoring opponents, 120-37.
Top-ranked Gaffney took on Byrnes in the Big 16 championship game in Death Valley.
The Indians started strong, forcing a three-and-out on the opening possession. And then Copeland found running back C.J. Miller for a short touchdown pass on their first drive to open up the scoring.
But on their next possession, Gaffney fumbled, and Byrnes was quick to capitalize. First, they executed a fake field goal on fourth down, and then standout quarterback Shuler Bentley capped it off with a 15-yard touchdown pass to make it 7-7.
For Gaffney, what had been a strength of theirs all season, ended up becoming their biggest liability, as several turnovers turned into Byrnes points. To start the second quarter, Copeland was intercepted by Skip Barnes, who took it the distance to put the Rebels on top.
Gaffney ended up tying the game after Copeland ran one in from five yards out, but Byrnes had a 17-14 lead at the break.
The Indians were able to tie the game on a field goal early in the third period, but two turnovers late in the quarter gave momentum to the Rebels. The dagger came later when, on fourth-and- one inside Rebels’ territory, Copeland fumbled and it was returned 57 yards for a touchdown. Byrnes took a 31-17 lead.
Copeland brought them back within a score, but on their final drive, his pass attempt on fourth and one sailed out of bounds, and Byrnes hung on for the win, handing the Indians their first loss of the season.
“Certainly it was heartbreaking,” said Jones. “I’ve coached here for 28 years and the best teams I’ve coached were 1993, and we didn’t win the state championship, and 2011, and we didn’t win the state championship.”
2012 State Championship Run
After a difficult loss in the 2011 title game, the chip was firmly planted on Gaffney’s shoulder going into 2012. And as if that wasn’t enough motivation, the team had to find a way to replace Copeland.
Coach Jones had a tough decision to make and ended up taking Davidson out of the receiving corps and placing him under center.
“He had quarterbacked the JV team as a ninth-grader, so we watched him dazzle kids that were a year older than him and they couldn’t touch him,” said Jones.
Davidson was a highly skilled athlete, serving as a dual-threat on the Indians offense. Senior defensive end Jaylen Miller was the focal point on defense. The Shrine Bowler racked up a staggering 26 sacks in 2012.
The team, however, faced an uphill battle early on after starting the season 3-3. But they rebounded the second half of the season and won five straight to finish 8-3.
They rolled past Ashley Ridge and Stratford in the first two rounds of the postseason, setting up a rematch with Byrnes in the Big 16 semi-finals.
Byrnes drew first blood, and the Rebels defense kept Gaffney in check for the majority of the game, bringing a 13-0 lead into the fourth quarter. But the Indians never gave up. They blocked a punt, setting themselves up inside the Byrnes’ 20. And Hyleck Foster ran one in for Gaffney’s first score of the game.
Less than one minute later, O’Bryant Davidson intercepted a Bentley pass and returned it 30 yards for a touchdown to give them a 14-13 lead. Foster delivered the icing on the cake late in the fourth as Gaffney defeated the Rebels, 21-19.
“We just weren’t going to be denied,” said Jones. “The year before we felt like we gave one away.”
They had reached the title game for the second straight year, and were matched up with rising powerhouse Dutch Fork, led by veteran head coach Tom Knotts. The Silver Foxes featured a dynamic offense that scored over 40 points per game in 2012 behind impressive quarterback Derek Olenchhuk and receiver Jordan Berry.
Davidson’s impact was felt immediately. On Gaffney’s opening drive, near midfield, Davidson faked the handoff, made one man miss, and burst through for a 50-yard touchdown run. At the 10 minute mark of the first quarter it was 7-0, Gaffney.
Moments later, on Dutch Fork’s first play, Olenchuk was picked off by Gaffney’s Xavier Foster.
The Indians took over already inside the red zone. That led to a Victor Ramirez field goal to make it 10-0 Gaffney.
Later in the first quarter, Gaffney made its way back to the Silver Foxes 19-yard-line when Davidson dropped back to pass on third down but decided to tuck it and run and went untouched for the score. The Indians jumped out to a 17-0 lead and hung on to that for the remainder of the first period.
In the opening minutes of the second quarter, Dutch Fork found the end zone on a short yardage touchdown run by Matt Colburn.
Davidson and the Gaffney offense went to work in the final two minutes of the first half. At about the 1:30 mark, O’Bryant Davidson corralled a low pass on a designed wide receiver screen and turned on the jets. Davidson outran the Dutch Fork defense 45 yards to the house. Boos were heard throughout Williams-Brice Stadium as the replay appeared to show the ball hitting the ground before Davidson had possession but, nonetheless, Gaffney took a 24-7 lead into the break.
The Indians put together a solid drive to begin the second half, bringing it inside the Dutch Fork five-yard-line. But Gaffney settled for a Ramirez field goal to improve their lead to 27-7.
The Silver Foxes weren’t going quietly, however. They responded with a long drive resulting in a touchdown to cut into the Gaffney lead, now 27-14.
On a pivotal possession following the Dutch Fork score, Gaffney kept applying the pressure. They struck once again when Davidson connected with a wide open Eddy Studyvance down the seam for a 38-yard touchdown to cap off a 78-yard drive. They were back in front by 20.
Dutch Fork was able to find the endzone again, but the lead was too much to overcome for the Silver Foxes, and Gaffney won, 34-22.
Davidson accounted for nearly 300 total yards and four touchdowns. The defense provided four first half turnovers and collectively the Indians grabbed their first state championship since 2006.
Gaffney experienced some modest years following the 2012 title, going 26-23 over the next four seasons. In 2017, they reached the 5A upper state championship game, but lost to Dorman. In the last two seasons, they’ve gone 11-2 and 10-4, respectively, most recently reaching the upper final in 2019, a 30-6 loss at Dorman.
The winningest program in South Carolina high school football history, Gaffney has carried on a tradition of success throughout several decades. They’ve won the most state championships in South Carolina High School League history with 16, six of which were secured in the last 30 seasons. Gaffney claims a 17th title, earned in a poll before championships were decided on the field.
And since 1990, Gaffney has made an upper state final or state semi-finals 15 times, tied for the second-most appearances in Pete’s Top 10.
During that span, the Indians have had some down years, but that was never sustained for longer than a couple of seasons. Gaffney always bounced back, and responded with dominant runs. On four occasions, under the leadership of three different head coaches, Gaffney made back-to-back title-game appearances.
Over the past 30 seasons, they’ve put together a 283-126 record, resulting in six state championships and three runners-up. They’re one of three area schools to win at least one state crown in each of the past three decades.
They’ve maintained a powerhouse status in that time and, with their recent resurgence, they very well may return to form in the 2020s.
Pete’s Top 10:
Gaffney Football record since 1990 (Courtesy of SC Football History & MaxPreps)