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When Art Craig played high school football and basketball at Buford High School where he graduated in 1982, he never saw postseason action.
“We never went to playoffs in basketball or football,” Craig said.
As Craig recalls now, it wasn’t all for naught at BHS where he played football under the late Danny Sawyer and Porter Kennington.
While a Jackets athlete, Craig also played basketball under Steve Williams, the former Lancaster High School baseball coach who now guides the University of South Carolina at Lancaster baseball program. At that time, Williams also coached baseball and football at BHS.
“If it wasn’t for Steve Williams, I wouldn’t be coaching,” Craig said. “He pushed me. I don’t know where I’d be if he didn’t push me in that direction.”
That notable push reached a pinnacle earlier this month when Craig guided Timberland High School to its first-ever state football championship.
The title for the Berkeley County Class AA school was also the first for Craig, a 14-year high school football head coach which includes 11 years at Timberland and three at Cross High School.
Just for the record during that stint, he’s been to the playoffs 13 times, including the last 10 at Timberland. His record in those 14 seasons is 143-36.
“I remember those years at Buford and I tell our players to make the most of it,” he said. “Give it your best shot. Getting to the playoffs isn’t a given.”
Getting to the playoffs wasn’t a major problem. Getting that state title was.
In 2006, Timberland fell to Blythewood, 23-21 in a heart-breaker for the Class AAA state football title.
Then as a Class AA school, there’s been a problem of Dillon, the Class AA Lower State power. The Wildcats won the Class AA Lower State title in 2008 and 2009 and finished as the state runner-up a year ago.
Dillon was again a factor this season as Craig’s THS Wolves would have to beat them at DHS to get to the state title game. Dillon had defeated Timberland five straight games, including the last three years in the playoffs.
In 2008, the Wildcats defeated Timberland 28-27 in the Lower State title game. Playoff losses to Dillon in 2009 (10-7) and 2008 (31-14) came in the third-round.
You get the picture, Dillon had been the Wolves’ nemesis much like Matt Dillon was the villains’ Waterloo in those old Gunsmoke episodes of TV Westerns in yesteryear.
The 2011 season was the charm as the Wolves rallied to knock off Dillon, 18-15, but it wasn’t easy. Dillon entered the game having allowed only 34 points all season.
Dillon was expected to make a return to the Class AA state title game.
The Wildcats were loaded with three junior lineman with Div. I offers and senior ace receiver Kwinton Smith is headed to play for the USC Gamecocks.
“People from Dillon had bought ads in the state title game program,” Craig noted.
Timberland built a 9-0 halftime lead, but the Wildcats stormed back to take a 15-9 lead.
Timberland rallied to tie the game and then won on a 41-yard field goal with 10 seconds left.
“It was real exhilarating,” Craig said. “Not many people thought we were going to win.”
The win over Dillon advanced the Wolves to the Class AA Div. I state title game against Woodruff, an unbeaten team with state championship tradition on its side – 10 state titles.
“Woodruff had all this history,” Craig noted.
Determined Timberland, in the state title game, held a 6-3 lead at the half and added a pair of second-half touchdowns to seal the 20-3 win.
“We had 1,400 people for our send-off Friday (the day of the game) and our practice on Thursday was the most emotional practice we’ve ever had,” Craig said. “The kids were ready and focused.”
Winning a state football title was about mixed emotions for Craig – happiness and relief.
“It was validation,” Craig said. “You don’t worry about what if this, or what if that now.”
As Craig reflects on the Wolves’ banner season, he noted THS’ lone loss as the turning point.
The Wolves fell to Region VII-AA foe Bishop England, 17-3 on Oct. 21.
The loss ended a 47-game regular-season win streak.
“That took a lot of pressure off us,” Craig said. “As a head coach, I sat back and reevaluated. All we were going to do was play 48 minutes at a time. Our kids played with a mission.”
As it turned out, Bishop England won the Class AA Div. II state title, and Timberland captured the AA Div. I state crown with wins over storied programs in Dillon and Woodruff.
Not bad for coach who never experienced the playoffs as a player, but has made the most of a needed “push” to reach the top.