At the end of the regular season, Wardlaw Academy was facing a situation no one associated with the Patriot football team wanted to see.
The team’s most productive athlete suffered a season-ending injury. As a result, the team ended the regular season on a two-game losing skid and likely had to go on the road for whatever playoff rounds it was able to reach.
Yet barely three weeks later, Wardlaw (10-2) is playing for its third straight SCISA 8-Man state championship and fourth in five years.
“This team is probably one of the best teams ... They play well together, and you can tell that,” head coach Mark Rodgers said of the team set to face W. W. King Academy (12-1) for the title on Friday. “And after we had our little soul-searching the last two weeks of the season, they’re back like we were second week of the season.”
Despite “adversity” that began before the season when sophomore lineman Bennett Rhoads was in a car accident that caused him to miss most of the season and continued with several others missing time with pneumonia, the Patriots started 8-0. Then came a matchup with Carolina Academy.
Wardlaw lost its first game of the year 40-28, but even worse, star running back Malik Lee – a junior that had already racked up 1,800 yards and 32 touchdowns – broke his ankle. The Patriots also lost their next game, a home matchup against King they lost 34-26 to finish third in Region II.
“When we lost Malik, we lost our identity,” Rodgers said. “We just told them, we’re going to win with the people up front.”
Even without Lee, that offensive front is formidable. Led by seniors Austin Rodgers – listed at 6-foot-6 and 302 pounds – and Jacob Baynham (6-3, 295), the unit also includes Rhoads, no small man at 6-4 and 275 pounds. Behind that group, the Patriots have advanced past Patrick Henry and Carolina Academy to get to the title matchup.
“We’re no longer the real big play that can happen at any moment in a game,” the Patriot coach said. “We’re a more traditional, I’m going to say 1990, 1980 Nebraska. We’re going for 4 yards, and we’re going to line back up and get another 4.”
That’s not to say there aren’t weapons capable of putting up big numbers for Wardlaw. In Friday’s 44-28 revenge victory over Carolina Academy, senior Holton Manly rushed for 199 yards on 18 carries, while sophomore Rycharde Coates was good for 173 and three touchdowns.
Manly was once the starting quarterback for the Patriots, but he has become a jack of all trades with sophomore Ed Williams taking over the majority of the snaps behind center.
“Holton has played more of the role of an athlete,” Rodgers said of the senior who still plays some quarterback, in addition to tight end, wide receiver, fullback and tailback. “We still run some formations with Holton at quarterback because he’s just such a good passer, and he can make things happen when he gets in the open.”
Manly said that the coaches’ decision to use him in multiple positions was ideal for the exact situation that came to fruition late in the year.
“It helps you learn the whole playbook. “So if someone gets hurt or they need someone to go into a different spot, they’ve always got me to kind of move around anywhere they need me.”
More than replacing the star tailback’s production, Manly was focused on the intangible things he’s had to do to guide his peers through the postseason.
“Malik was really the leader of the team offensive-wise, so I guess helping everyone get their mind right,” he said of his role since Lee’s injury.
Now, the Patriots will get a second crack at King, which has won four straight since losing to Carolina on Oct. 18. Rodgers said that winning another state title would be the culmination of what he’s tried to teach his players throughout an up-and-down season.
“Well we tell them all the time, we’re trying to teach life,” he said. “And you’re going to face adversity. You’ve got to fight through it, try to keep reaching for your goal. And this team, for me, it’ll be bittersweet if we can’t finish the job.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.
At a glance
WHAT: SCISA 8-Man state championship game
WHO: Wardlaw (10-2) vs. W.W. King (12-1)
LAST MEETING: King won 34-26 on Nov. 1
WHEN: Friday, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Saluda High School
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Wardlaw head coach Mark Rodgers watches practice with tight end Tanner Sherrill, left, and lineman Austin Rodgers.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Once the starting quarterback at Wardlaw, Holton Manly, left, has fulfilled many roles for the Patriots this season.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Wardlaw head coach Mark Rodgers addresses the team after Wednesday's practice.×