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.
#6 Union (1990-2006)
State Titles: 1990, 1995, 1999, 2000, 2002
State Runner-Up: 2001
Playoff Appearances: 17
Semifinal appearances: 11
Under the leadership of head coaches Shell Dula and Mike Anthony, the Union High Yellow Jackets strung together an incredible run of consistent success in both 4A and 3A. From 1990 to 2006, before Union High was consolidated with two other high schools in the county to become Union County High School, the Yellow Jackets won five state championships, were 3A state runner-up in 2001, and reached the upper state final round 11 times.
The Shell Dula Era (1986-1996)
Shell Dula came to Union in 1986 after a successful run at Ninety-Six, which resulted in a state championship. In fact, Dula is one of just three head coaches in Palmetto State history to win at least one state title at three different schools.
In his first four seasons, Dula and the Yellow Jackets went 19-39, resulting in two playoff appearances. In 1989, they made it to the 4A Division II upper state final, falling to North Augusta by one point. That ‘89 squad was the catalyst for turning the program into a legitimate contender. It was a year where Dula and the staff made an unconventional decision.
“One move we made right then is we decided ‘let’s put the best athlete on the team at quarterback,” said Dula.
Union had a quality quarterback in returner Ben Wages, but tight end Kevin Addis was the best athlete, and so they made the switch, moving Wages to center, of all positions. The move worked, and provided a reliable foundation for a winning formula in Union.
1990 State Championship Run
Going into the 1990 season, Dula could see the team had a very good shot at winning a 4A Division II state championship as several key players entered their senior year.
“We had some really good players, all of (whom) were now rising seniors,” said Dula. “They had played together in middle school, and played together on the ninth-grade team.”
They also had a key playmaker in running back Anthony Hunter, who had established himself as one of the best all-around talents in South Carolina. In 1990, Hunter reached the end zone 35 times, something the offense as a whole accomplished quite often.
“[Hunter] could run for a big man,” said Dula. “He was a tremendous football player,” said Dula.
Aside from Hunter, Union had other standouts, including receivers Joe Woods and Monty Means, a future USC Gamecock.
With the coaching staff having been together for a few years, especially with offensive coordinator Mike West, and defensive coordinator Bill Owens as the top assistants, there was stability in the program.
Union won the Region 2-4A crown in 1990, losing only one game in the region to Rock Hill, which played for the Big 16 state title that season as well.
It was also the Yellow Jackets’ only loss overall on the season, an impressive feat in that they were in a region with predominantly Big 16 schools and they had one of the smaller 4A enrollments in the state.
Among their other significant wins that season was their victory at Spartanburg to secure the region title, as they eventually closed out the regular season at 10-1. The win over the Vikings sticks in Dula’s memory because of the humorous circumstances surrounding the game, a malfunctioning scoreboard at Wofford’s old Snyder Field in particular, which displayed a lopsided Spartanburg win from the week before throughout the night. Watch below for Dula’s recollection of that story and that Union win.
The Yellow Jackets steamrolled Laurens in the opening round of the 4A Division II playoffs, 42-14, before exacting revenge on North Augusta from the prior season, 31-10, in the state quarterfinals. In the 4A Division II upper state final, Union handled T.L. Hanna in a 49-10 victory.
They were set for a 4A Division II state championship showdown with Lancaster at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Lancaster had a dual threat, or perhaps triple threat, quarterback in Tracy McGriff, who gave Union’s defense fits throughout the contest. Dula recalls the Rams QB throwing, catching, and rushing for a touchdown in the game.
“[He] put on the greatest performance I’ve ever seen by a high school football player,” said Dula.
The Yellow Jackets went back and forth with the Bruins, and held a 27-20 lead late in the fourth quarter. But Lancaster had time to score, and McGriff led them down the field, catching a touchdown to bring them within a point. But instead of going for the extra point to tie, the Bruins decided to go for two to take the lead. That’s when defensive coordinator Bill Owens called on the offensive weapon, Hunter, to make the biggest play on the biggest stage.
“Believe it or not, we took Anthony Hunter, who was just our ‘Mr. Everything’, but we took Anthony and he played a little bit of linebacker, maybe three or four plays a game. Bill Owens moved him in and put him at linebacker because of his height. And they threw a little pass and Anthony jumps up and bats it away, and the rest is history.”
Union held on to win the program’s first ever state championship by the slimmest of margins, 27-26, but it was enough to get the job done.
“I think the best football team that we’ve been a part of was that 1990 team,” said Dula. “I think first of all it’s the excitement for your players and for your community. The community of Union…they were so excited.”
Union won ten games each of the next two seasons, making an appearance in the 4A Division II upper state finals in 1991 and 1992 and falling to eventual state champs Laurens (by a point in ‘91) and Aiken, 31-24, the following season.
Still, the Yellow Jackets had established themselves as a rising program.
1993 and 1994 were rebuilding years for Union, each ending in first-round exits from the postseason.
1995 State Championship Run
The 1995 Union Yellow Jackets seemed primed to make another deep playoff run complete with big-play talent on offense, and a shut-down defense.
Travis Briggs took over as the team’s quarterback, and he formed a quality tandem with big receiver, Donovan Norman, who went on to play at the University of South Carolina. Owens remained the defensive coordinator, and Gary Fast was brought in to run the offense.
Owens’ defense surrendered fewer than nine points per game as the Yellow Jackets finished 7-4, still playing in the rugged Region 2-4A which included a Spartanburg team that was in the process of winning 37 straight and three consecutive Big 16 state titles.
Some early losses put the Jackets in a hole, but the team finished strong.
“It was a team that just got better, and better, and better,” said Dula.
While their record wasn’t always as eye-popping as other contenders from year to year, the team was always proud of its difficult schedule, and how battle tested it was by season’s end.
1995 was no different.
“Competition makes you better,“ Dula said. “The one thing you could always say to our team when we prepared for the playoffs was ‘we aren’t gonna play anybody any better than what we’ve already played. We had Dorman, Gaffney, Spartanburg, Rock Hill, Northwestern, us, Boiling Springs, Byrnes, or Chester. We felt it was important (to make us better) to play those people.”
Those tough matchups prepared them for the playoffs, and Union cruised to another 4A Division II upper state final, trouncing Wando and Hartsville by a combined score of 75-7.
In the upper state final, the Yellow Jackets matched up with a red hot Fairfield Central squad. The Yellow Jackets won a close game, 35-28.
“It was an outstanding football game,” said Dula. “Our kids played awfully hard and we found a way to win.”
Fairfield Central went on to record a 30-game winning streak after that (dropping down to 3A the next year, like Union did, in a new South Carolina High School League reclassification), a testament to Union’s ability as well.
Union battled Walterboro in the 4A Division II state championship game in Columbia. All of the ups and downs from the season culminated in a convincing win for the Yellow Jackets, 31-16.
“They never lost the big picture,” Dula said.
The move down to 3A in 1996 resulted in a season-ending loss to Daniel in the second round of the upper state playoffs. It was Dula’s final season at the helm as he left to take over Greenwood.
Union High alum Mike Anthony took the job as head coach ahead of the 1997 season, hoping to build on the winning tradition in place.
“I leaned up against that goal post and said ‘what an honor,’” Anthony recounted.
Mike Anthony Era (1997-2004)
When Anthony made his return to Union, he was pleasantly surprised to see how the kids approached their work on the field.
“When I walked in here it was amazing how the work ethic was with these kids compared to any other place I’d been,” said Anthony. “These kids knew how to work and I attributed that to coach Dula and the staff that basically I inherited.”
Anthony wanted to ensure stability within the program. So instead of bringing in his own verbiage, he told the coaching staff he wanted to adjust to how they called plays.
“I went through seven years and I’m not sure I knew all their plays yet,” Anthony said with a grin. “But still I had a handle on it and gave them the authority to coach their positions, and I think that’s something that’s critical.”
The 1997 regular season was a struggle, and Union finished a dismal 4-6.
“Won the first game against Woodruff and lost six in a row, and the people saying ‘that hometown boy, he ain’t too good,” said Anthony.
But the Yellow Jackets rebounded in the playoffs, and made an improbable run to the 3A upper state final against Daniel.
The Lions dominated, winning 63-27, but the Yellow Jackets had proved to themselves they could overcome any adversity that came their way.
They improved in 1998 regular season, going 6-4, only to fall in round three of the postseason to Fairfield Central.
After that campaign, Anthony and his coaching staff visited with a new staff at Clemson, particularly to learn about a new spread offense the Tigers would use under incoming coordinator Rich Rodriguez under recently hired head coach Tommy Bowden.
By the time they left, they had a new philosophy and implemented it the following season, which gave them a leg up on the competition.
1999 State Championship Run
In 1999, Union was ready to take the leap once again. In his third year guiding the program, Anthony led the Yellow Jackets to a 9-1 regular season finish behind talented skill position players including quarterback Joe Pettit, receiver Roscoe Crosby, and running back Kyle Browning.
That year the players and assistant coaches wore t-shirts that read ‘1 2 3 9 9’ on the front. At first glance, the message was unclear to Anthony. But they later revealed to him the meaning. It was the date of that season’s 3A state championship game, December 3rd.
“That’s the confidence they had,” said Anthony.
Union dismantled its opponents on the road to the state championship game that year, beating Travelers Rest, BHP, Daniel, and then Greer in the 3A upper state final. They outscored their postseason opponents, 151-20.
Union took on Dillon for the 1999 3A state championship at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.
The Wildcats came into the game having reached at least the third round of the lower state playoffs in each of the previous six seasons, and lost in the state title game to Greer in 1994. Dillon was just as hungry for the title as Union, and they came out clicking on all cylinders.
The Wildcats took an 18-6 lead in the first half, stunning the Yellow Jackets.
“They (Union) weren’t relaxed, hadn’t been there,” said Anthony. “We went into halftime and I told them ‘you guys need to relax and play ball.”
The team took Anthony’s advice and found pay dirt in the opening seconds of the third quarter as Crosby returned the second half kickoff for a touchdown.
The Yellow Jackets held Dillon to just seven points the rest of the way, and defeated the Wildcats, 28-25 to capture the program’s third title of the decade.
2000 State Championship Run
The Yellow Jackets had a new quarterback in Josh Harris to begin the 2000 season.
“Josh Harris was amazing,” said Anthony. “He would go an entire practice and not throw an incompletion. It’s unbelievable. He was as good a passer as I’ve ever seen.”
And with a stellar group of upperclassmen returning, including Crosby and Browning, Union didn’t skip a beat, although the expectations were extremely high.
“There was so much pressure here within the community,” said Anthony. “Back-to-back, everybody had shirts on everywhere, ‘back-to-back’. They knew we had a core of talent coming back that could possibly do it.”
The Yellow Jackets took the pressure in stride, and week after week they proved they could rise to the occasion. For the second straight season, they were 9-1 heading into the playoffs. And again, they rode their potent offense to several dominant wins en route to the title game. Union toppled Riverside, Seneca, Clinton, and Greer to return to Columbia.
On the Thursday before the title game, in their final padded practice, coach Anthony had the team lay their jerseys down in a pile, signifying they were retiring their practice jerseys for that year and had made it to the 15th game. A Union tradition was born. Anthony talks about it here:
In the state championship game, Union took on Manning, a team just two seasons removed from a title game loss to Daniel.
The Yellow Jackets’ defense was on full display at the home of the Gamecocks, holding the Monarchs to just 12 points in a dominant 28-12 victory. Union had repeated as champs for the first time in school history.
2001 State Runner-Up
After the success of ‘99-’00, it appeared Union was destined to make it three championships in a row, especially with their quarterback Harris returning, despite losing some key talent.
Another 9-1 regular season paved the way for another year of impressive playoff performances, although the team had to dig deep in order to pull away in a couple very close games.
After rolling over Wade Hampton, 56-22, in the opening round, they narrowly defeated Belton-Honea Path the next week, 36-35. Then they overpowered York in round three, 44-10, before barely edging Greer in a 6-0 contest in the 3A upper state final.
Union continued to find a way and they were back in the title game for a third-straight year.
The Yellow Jackets ran into Camden for the 2000 3A state championship in what was a back- and-forth showdown that was nearly decided in the final seconds of regulation.
Tied at 21-21, Union had the ball with a few seconds on the clock. A desperation heave from Harris was caught by Charles Brannon in stride in Bulldogs’ territory with green grass in front of him. But just as Brannon neared the endzone, Camden’s Bruce Lee brought him down near the three-yard-line to deny the winning score and send the game into overtime.
“Radio guy asked Bruce ‘how did you catch him?,’” Anthony recalled. “He said ‘well Charles was running for a touchdown, I was running for my life, because this Camden crowd is gonna kill me if I let him score.’”
Camden won the thriller in overtime, 24-21.
“That was heartbreaking, but it was also another incentive for the next group,” said Anthony.
2002 State Championship Run
With a sour taste in their mouths, the Yellow Jackets returned with a renewed determination in 2002. And behind new quarterback Justin Knox, they were back to 9-1 in the regular season.
The first two weeks of the postseason were easy wins for the Jackets. They shutout Seneca in the opening round and then nearly doubled up Greenville in round two. Greer, as always, was a tough matchup in the third round, but Union won, 21-14.
“We respected each other even though it was an intense rivalry,” said Anthony.
In the upper state final, they coasted to victory over Lugoff Elgin, 43-7.
For the fourth year in a row they and their fans were headed back down US 176 to I-26 and on to Columbia.
In a rematch of the 2001 title game, Union faced Camden with a shot at revenge. Not only did the Yellow Jackets deliver, they made sure there was no doubt who deserved to be champion that year.
“So many of those kids actually played in that 2001 loss,” said Anthony. “We didn’t have to say a whole lot.”
The motivation was already built in. Union grabbed an early lead and defeated Camden, 61-28.
Three titles and one state runner-up in four years.
The following season, despite a 7-3 regular season finish, Union made yet another run at a state championship, reaching the upper state final for the fifth-consecutive season. But a would-be game-winning touchdown pass by Justin Knox late in the contest was intercepted by Greer’s Josh Williams, ending Union’s title game appearance streak.
It turned-out to be Anthony’s final game as head coach as well, as he retired a few weeks later, ending his run with three state championships and a 79-22 record.
Union made its way back to the upper state final one final time in 2005 under Tommy Bobo, losing to Clinton.
The 2006 campaign was its last as the consolidation into Union County High took effect for the 2007-2008 school year under former Jonesville head coach David Lipsey.
Union is the only program in Pete’s Top 10 that spans just 17 seasons instead of 30, due to the consolidation in 2007. But despite missing over a decade of potential successes, the achievements that the Yellow Jackets amassed can’t be ignored.
Registering five state championships, six title game appearances, and making the playoffs each season, Union was a serious contender for over a decade. Not only were they a fierce postseason opponent, they maintained that status after going through a switch in classification as well as head coaches.
Given all of its success in a short amount of time, the Yellow Jackets program has come in just outside the top five high school programs since 1990.
Pete’s Top 10:
Union Football record since 1990 (Courtesy of SC Football History & MaxPreps)