WILLISTON — Williston-Elko has been one of the area's most consistently successful football programs over the last several years, notching annual playoff trips and region championships.
All that and the 2009 Class A, Division II state championship came under former head coach Dwayne Garrick, though. This year's team will look to continue that winning tradition under new leadership.
2013 in Review
After back-to-back losses to start the 2013 season, Williston-Elko did what Williston-Elko does.
For the fifth straight year, the Blue Devils were undefeated in region play on the way to a Region 4-A title, and they capped the regular season with a 43-6 thrashing of Barnwell County rival Blackville-Hilda. That, coupled with a 30-9 win over Barnwell earlier in the year, also earned Williston-Elko bragging rights within the county.
“I think the biggest thing ... the whole 'getting better every week,' we did that,” said first-year head coach Derek Youngblood, previously the team's offensive coordinator.
From there, the Blue Devils routed CA Johnson 58-6 before falling to eventual Class A, Division I state champion Christ Church in the second round 42-31. While Youngblood said his team missed chances to beat Christ Church, the 9-3 season and ensuing playoff run gave his returning players some “pretty valuable experience.”
Williston-Elko didn't have a 1,000-yard running back a year ago, but there were three in the mix that ran for 650 yards or more. Two of them, Devon Fagans and Andrew Milligan, are back for the 2014 campaign, which should make the team's traditional multi-back running attack tough to handle.
Fagans finished as strong as anyone last year, running for more than 340 yards and six touchdowns in the team's two playoff games.
“He's a kid that we're counting on to do some big things for us back there,” Youngblood said.
Christian Sapp is another familiar name that's back in the mix. The do-it-all athlete ran for 195 yards, caught eight passes and recorded 40 tackles with three sacks and three interceptions last year, and Youngblood said the senior “makes this program roll.”
“Sapp is going to do whatever Christian Sapp wants to do,” the coach said of Sapp's lead role on the team this year. “When he speaks, they listen.”
On defense, Justice Wallace is also back, and that's a big deal. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound defensive end racked up eight sacks and 10 tackles for loss last year, and his length off the edge makes him difficult to block.
Most of the Blue Devils' key components played a year ago in some capacity, but they will be stepping into more prominent roles this year.
One such player is offensive lineman Daniel Smith. After Taylor Hearn graduated and moved on to play in the trenches at Clemson, Smith will have to anchor the Williston-Elko line, and Youngblood said the 6-foot-4, 285-pound junior put in the work to do so.
“Daniel's a kid that made all 28 of his workouts this summer,” Youngblood said.
Taking over at quarterback will be senior Marcell Wright. Wright isn't a complete unknown – he racked up 412 rushing yards and two touchdowns to go with 11 tackles and two interceptions on defense a year ago – but this is his first year starting under center after serving as a backup in the past.
“Marcell's probably our best offensive player,” Youngblood said. “He's playing quarterback, mostly because of the experience he has there.”
On defense, newcomer Andre Dunbar is expected to take over a cornerback spot. Even though he doesn't have a ton of size, Youngblood said Dunbar can hold his own.
“You look at him and he's 5-9, probably 170 (pounds), but he plays big,” the coach said.
Games to watch
If there was any temptation to start his head coaching career with a couple easy wins, Youngblood didn't give in.
The Blue Devils' first two opponents, Bamberg-Erhardt and Silver Bluff, met for the Class AA, Division II Lower State championship a year ago, and county foe Barnwell also won a playoff game at the Class AA level. To add to the difficulty, all three games are on the road.
“We've always tried to make those first three games pretty good, competition-wise,” Youngblood said.
Once Region 4-A play begins, everyone will have one game circled on the Blue Devils' schedule: an Oct. 3 home duel with Hunter-Kinard-Tyler. The Blue Devils won last year's matchup 6-0, but then the Trojans went on to win the Class A, Division II championship.
H-K-T is also getting back quarterback Khaliq Anthony and running back Jarius Jenkins, a Williston-Elko transfer prior to the 2013 season.
“That's going to be a big game, region-wise,” Youngblood said.
Youngblood has said since taking over head coaching duties that his offense will stick to the run-first principles the team employed under Garrick.
With Fagans and Milligan returning, along with Wright and other backs, Youngblood said his team will be hard to stop on the ground.
“The thing about it is, we're going to be tough,” he said. “We're going to stick the ball in there.”
One of those other options is Fabian Bing, who will help balance the running game with a combination of abilities.
“Fabian brings a pretty good balance of speed and power,” Youngblood said.
The Blue Devils won't be quite as ground-centric as recent years, though. Youngblood said that he expects his team to throw more than the 112 passes that the offense attempted last season, with a “really good group” of receivers that includes Wallace, Sapp, Da'Twon Owens, Nate Cunningham and freshman Demarkiss Doe.
“The ball will be in the air a little more than it's been in the past,” Youngblood said.
The Blue Devils will also stick with what's been working on defense, where defensive coordinator Kenneth Lipsey will have his unit again operating out of a five-man front. Youngblood said that the package made use of the team's “best personnel,” but he also said that Lipsey was as big a part of the team's success as any group of players.
“If that cat had to leave, I'd have to cut both my arms off,” the head coach said of his attachment to his assistant.
The defense will start up front with a group anchored by Wallace and Smith and a linebacking corps led by Sapp and Milligan.
Youngblood said that Milligan would be a force because of his attitude as much as anything else.
“He's one of those guys that, he's ready,” Youngblood said.
Despite all that experience and talent in the front seven, Youngblood said the unit's leadership will be in the defensive backfield. Keyshawn Ogletree had just one tackle a year ago, but the free safety is stepping into a big role this season.
“If I had to pick a leader for us on defense, he's that guy,” Youngblood said.
The Blue Devils have never relied too much on their kicking game, but they did lose Hearn, who handled both kicking and punting duties in recent years.
This year, that job will go to sophomore Tyshawn Allen, who also had 17 tackles with a sack last season.
“He's a pretty good player,” Youngblood said. “He's going to play some linebacker for us, too.”
Bing could also see some time at one of the kicking spots.
In the return game, Williston-Elko's variety of skill players – Fagans, Milligan, Sapp, Bing and Wright to name a few – give Younglood plenty of options that could yield results.
“We've probably got close to eight guys that we can put back there deep,” he said.
The Blue Devils come into the season inheriting an impressive run of success in region play. With its last region loss coming at the end of the 2008 season, Williston-Elko has won 35 straight region games.
Youngblood said that fact hasn't gone unnoticed as he's addressed his team in preparation for the season.
“Well yeah, I think about it,” he said. “That's a long time, but it's like everything else. At some point, we're going to lose a region game.”
That doesn't mean he's ready for that loss to come any time soon. Youngblood said his team is aiming to “have a chance to play for the state championship” like the Blue Devils did in three straight seasons from 2008 to 2010 with one title victory.
“We want to be in the hunt at the end,” Youngblood said. “That's our goal.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University. Follow him on Twitter @ASJTimm.
• Edisto 28, Williston-Elko 19
• Chesterfield 25, Williston-Elko 14
• Williston-Elko 30, Barnwell 9
• Williston-Elko 55, Denmark-Olar 14
• Williston-Elko 54, North 6 *
• Williston-Elko 62, Wagener-Salley 40 *
• Williston-Elko 27, Fox Creek 7 *
• Williston-Elko 6, H-K-T 0 *
• Williston-Elko 38, Ridge Spring-Monetta 25 *
• Williston-Elko 43, Blackville-Hilda 6 *
• Williston-Elko 58, CA Johnson 6 **
• Christ Church 42, Williston-Elko 31 **
* - Region 4-A game
** - Class A, Division I playoff game
All games at 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 22 at Bamberg-Ehrhardt
Aug. 29 at Silver Bluff
Sept. 5 at Barnwell
Sept. 12 vs. Denmark-Olar
Sept. 19 vs. Fox Creek
Sept. 26 BYE
Oct. 3 vs. Hunter-Kinard-Tyler ^
Oct. 10 at North ^
Oct. 17 vs. Blackville-Hilda ^
Oct. 24 at Wagener-Salley ^
Oct. 31 vs. Calhoun County ^
^ - Region 4-A game
Aug. 4 North Augusta
Aug. 5 Strom Thurmond
Aug. 6 Fox Creek
Aug. 7 South Aiken
Monday Silver Bluff
Wednesday Ridge Spring-Monetta
Thursday Midland Valley
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman First-year Williston-Elko head coach Derek Youngblood addresses his team after Friday's first session of practice.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Williston-Elko defensive coordinator Kenneth Lipsey gives instruction during Friday's first session of practice.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Williston-Elko' first-year head coach speaks to his players during Friday's first session of practice.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Members of the Williston-Elko football team run a sprint during Friday's first session of practice.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman The Williston-Elko football team gathers during Friday's first session of practice.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Williston-Elko's Christian Sapp runs a sprint during Friday's first session of practice.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Williston-Elko's Daniel Smith listens to instruction during Friday's first session of practice.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Williston-Elko's Christian Sapp, center, and teammates look on during Friday's first session of practice.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Williston-Elko's Justice Wallace runs a sprint during Friday's first session of practice.×