If football experience has any impact on coaching ability, Coco Hillary already has the base for a successful career.

First, he was the senior quarterback for the 2005 Strom Thurmond football team that won the Class AAA state championship, the most recent state title head coach Lee Sawyer and the Rebels brought back to Johnston.

Then he went on to play college football at FCS power Appalachian State, a team that won the national championship at that level in 2005. The Mountaineers repeated the feat in 2006 – Hillary redshirted that year – and then went on to do the same in 2007 with Hillary contributing as a receiver and kick returner. That was also the season that Appalachian State shocked the college football world by beating then-No. 5 Michigan at the Big House. That was a game Hillary caught a touchdown pass.

Now in his second year as the quarterback coach at Midland Valley, Hillary said all that positive experience had raised his standard for football achievement.

“What it does for you as a coach is it pushes you to the level of expectations needed to be successful,” he said.

As for his high school experience, Hillary said that Sawyer showed him how to bring an energy level to a football program. He said that Sawyer laid the ground work for everything that he’s done as a player and in his young coaching career.

“He instills in you a strong base before you go out and venture,” he said.

Now working for the Mustangs’ Rick Knight, Hillary has seen a more relaxed style of coaching, but he’s also further developed important character traits. Hillary said the Mustang football players emulate the structure and discipline they’ve seen from Knight.

“All that stuff that he really lives by – being a good sportsman,” Hillary said of Knight.

That paid off on the field for Midland Valley, especially in the second half of the regular season. After starting 0-4, the Mustangs won four of their next five games and finished third in Region 5-AAA, good enough for a playoff spot. They lost in their playoff opener at Berkeley, but a 4-7 season was a far cry from the season’s early returns.

A good bit of that success stemmed from the play of freshman quarterback Daniel Carr, who, like Hillary was at Strom Thurmond, is a threat to make plays with his arm and his legs. He took over the primary signal calling duties in the Mustangs’ first win over Baptist Hill and finished the year with a 4-3 record as a starter.

As Carr’s position coach, Hillary said the first-year player makes coaching easy.

“A kid with such natural ability like Daniel ... you know you can just guide that player into the right situations,” he said.

Right now, Hillary’s situation at Midland Valley also includes coaching JV basketball. While football is where his ambition lies, the second-year coach said he’s enjoying his efforts to help build a successful basketball program for the Mustangs.

“You know, I take anything that I take on as a stepping stone,” he said.

And while Hillary’s focus is on Midland Valley athletics for now, his ultimate goal is to coach at the college level before returning to the high school ranks later in life as a head coach. He said he wants the opportunity to pour his everything into a college career.

“I want to take it to another level because I’ve seen it done on another level,” Hillary said.

Hillary isn’t specific in his goals for which programs he’ll coach in the future. However, the idea of Sawyer turning over the keys to the Strom Thurmond program to him one day is a welcome one.

“Wow, that would be awesome,” he said.

Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.