Wardlaw ready to defend 8-Man state title
2012 In Review
Though Wardlaw Academy’s 2012 season began with the type of mystery that always seems to accompany a new head coach, it ended the way so many have for the Patriots: with a state championship.
The Patriots posted an 11-1 record last year, entering the SCISA 8-Man playoffs as the top seed from Region II en route to the school’s fourth state title in the past five years and seventh in program history.
First-year head coach Mark Rodgers picked up right where Chalmers Carr left off, guiding an explosive offense and stingy defense through a tough region schedule. The lone blemish on Wardlaw’s slate came at the hands of King Academy, in a 40-14 Oct. 26 defeat.
The Patriots blazed out of the gates in 2012, opening the season with eight consecutive wins, many in blowout fashion.
The loss to King provided a jolt before the postseason, where the Patriots won three straight games. The finale, a 58-42 win over St. John’s Christian Academy, ensured that the state title would remain in Johnston for at least one more year.
Wardlaw boasts both talent and experience at many positions, with many of its players having contributed to multiple championships already.
Electrifying junior running back Malik Lee is the headliner, having rushed for 4,137 yards and 46 touchdowns on 260 carries in 2012 to earn the High School Sports Report’s Player of the Year honors for the 8-Man division. Lee capped the season in style, carrying the ball 42 times for 419 yards and seven touchdowns in the state title game.
Though the game features fewer players, eight-man football is still won in the trenches.
Wardlaw returns plenty of bulk and athleticism up front, including All-State offensive lineman Jacob Baynham. Austin Rodgers and Zach Sherrill.
Wardlaw also brings back its starting quarterback, Holton Manly.
Manly passed for 687 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012. He was at his best when it counted the most, completing all of his pass attempts in the state semifinals and championship game.
Daylen Morris will also be a focal point for Wardlaw. Morris earned All-State honors at linebacker last year and will fill the void at fullback left by Kerry Cockrell’s graduation.
“We don’t have the big fullback that we had last year that could pound it and could block,” said Rodgers. “(Morris) is more of a running fullback. That’s going to be a different look in our I-formation than what we did last year.”
Wardlaw’s roster is among 8-Man football’s deepest, with many of its newcomers poised to contribute in 2013. Rodgers expects big things from former contributors who missed time last year because of injury.
“We have some young and skilled people coming back that got hurt during the season last year,” he said.
Scott James, Blake Rearden and Justin Richburg are all returning from knee injuries. Wide receiver Tanner Sherrill, tailback Rycharde Coates and freshman Spencer Moore are also expected to pitch in.
Games to Watch
For Wardlaw to bring home a third consecutive state title, the Patriots will once again have to navigate a difficult schedule loaded with teams looking to dethrone the champs. Rodgers considers all of them to be big games and has instilled that attitude in his players.
“I tell them all the time, ‘We are defending.’ Nobody’s won a state championship this year,” Rodgers said. “We’re going to get everybody’s ‘A’ game, and that’s what you expect.”
Charleston Collegiate will be looking for revenge in the season opener, still stinging from a 72-50 defeat to open last year’s postseason. Another 2012 playoff casualty pursuing payback is Carolina Academy, Wardlaw’s semifinal round victim.
While several teams will look for retribution against Wardlaw, the Patriots will be seeking vengeance against only one: King Academy.
“They pretty much shut us down last year,” Lee said, referencing the 14 points Wardlaw scored in that game, its fewest all year. “I guess we’ll get a little payback this year.”
Wardlaw’s volatile offense is a big reason why the Patriots enter the 2013 season having won 24 of their last 25 games. Wardlaw blitzed the opposition last season, scoring over 46 points per game. Still, Rodgers sees room for improvement.
“We want to add some more to the offense,” he said, “as far as being able to do some different things and put people in binds defensively with our personnel.”
Rodgers has more than enough offensive firepower to do just that, and it starts with a dynamic running game. With a host of returning starters on the offensive line and in the backfield, a Wardlaw offense that terrorized opponents a year ago remains mostly intact.
Experience also plays a key role in what the Patriots are able to do offensively. His roster loaded with champions, Rodgers feels that belief leads to success.
“They believe in what we’re doing, and they don’t think they’re going to be stopped,” he said.
With many Patriots playing on both sides of the ball, returning a lot of talent on offense means the same for the defense. The Patriots yielded 26 points per game a year ago, third-best in Region II.
Much like on offense, Rodgers wants to see fundamentally sound, hard-hitting defense. It’s a simple strategy with rich rewards when run well. Having a strong defense, especially up front, makes life much easier for the Patriots’ playmakers on offense.
“I don’t really worry about the other side of the ball because of the line that we’ve got, so they have a big push and they always get their job done,” said Lee.
That push up front is led by Bennett Rhoads, whose nine sacks led the team in 2012, and Baynham, who added seven sacks of his own along with a team-high 63 tackles.
With fewer players on a wide-open field, special teams in 8-Man football is all about positioning. For Rodgers, the main objective is to place kicks in the right spots to minimize potential returns, something the Patriots worked on over the summer.
Kicking duties will come down to Rearden or Ed Williams. Rodgers believes that Coates will probably return kicks, with potential for Lee or even Manly to see some time as returners.
Wardlaw enters the year as two-time defending state champions, and defending is exactly what they expect to do.
Wardlaw’s senior class is hungry for another title to cap off their high school careers, while some of the younger players still don’t have much of an idea of what it’s like to lose. Even though they’ve been dominant lately, Rodgers knows his team won’t get complacent, adding that team morale has been outstanding.
Rodgers’ goals for 2013 mirror those of his players. Despite the massive target Wardlaw has earned itself as champions, the Patriots enter the season with a confident outlook.
“We expect to defend,” Rodgers said. “We expect to defend.”
• Wardlaw 66, Charleston Collegiate 24
• Wardlaw 30, Clarendon Hall 12
• Wardlaw 40, Jefferson Davis Academy 12
• Wardlaw 52, Andrew Jackson Academy 6
• Wardlaw 36, Greenwood Christian 22
• Wardlaw 56, Cathedral Academy 32
• Wardlaw 38, Richard Winn Academy 22
• Wardlaw 60, Carolina Academy 30
• King Academy 40, Wardlaw 14
• Wardlaw 72, Charleston Collegiate 50*
• Wardlaw 34, Carolina Academy 20*
• Wardlaw 58, St. John’s Christian Academy 42*
* Playoff game
Aug. 30 vs. Charleston Collegiate
Sept. 6 Laurens Academy (TBA)
Sept. 13 at Clarendon Hall
Sept. 20 vs. Jefferson Davis Academy
Sept. 27 vs. Andrew Jackson Academy
Oct. 4 at Greenwood Christian
Oct. 11 at Cathedral Academy
Oct. 18 vs. Richard Winn Academy
Oct. 25 at Carolina Academy
Nov. 1 vs. King
AUG. 9: South Aiken
AUG. 10: Fox Creek
AUG. 11: Strom Thurmond
AUG. 12: Williston-Elko
AUG. 13: North Augusta
AUG. 14: Silver Bluff
AUG. 15: Wagener-Salley
AUG. 18: Aiken
AUG. 19: Midland Valley
AUG. 20: Ridge Spring-Monetta