WAGENER — Brian Smith gathered his Ridge Spring-Monetta football team on their old field Friday afternoon before the Class A Upper State championship.
The Trojans, road underdogs against undefeated county rival Wagener-Salley, simply talked. They talked about Smith's first few days on the job back at the end of June. They talked about where they were as a football team. They talked about what the old Walter J. Davis Field meant to them.
Then they rode down Highway 39 and left everyone speechless.
Eighth-ranked RS-M's revenge tour continued, this time pulling off a 26-22 shocker that didn't just avenge a loss during the regular season – it sent the Trojans to Columbia to play for a state championship.
"Rem! Rem!" Smith yelled after the handshake line, addressing sophomore quarterback Remedee Leaphart. "Rem, we're going to the 'ship!"
Leaphart, who didn't play in the 40-6 regular-season loss due to injury, was electric Friday night. He passed for 229 yards and two touchdowns, including a 33-yarder to Ant Nerulus with 4:10 left in the third quarter that proved to be the game-winner in front of a standing-room-only crowd that even three additional sets of portable bleachers couldn't hold.
That touchdown came just 43 seconds after Wagener-Salley (12-1) had retaken the lead at 22-20, and the RS-M defense made stop after stop to keep the War Eagles from scoring again.
"It's amazing. We played our tails off. We had some chances earlier. Our kids kept believing," Smith said. "We had some chances earlier. We didn't get down because we didn't get them. We just kept working. We felt like we would be good in the passing game, and at certain points we were able to establish the run game. Our defense played their tails off. It was awesome."
Kenyon Ligons picked off a tipped pass deep in RS-M (10-4) territory early in the fourth quarter, and then Tray Dean continued to wreak havoc in Wagener-Salley's backfield by recovering his second fumble of the night. A long Collier Sullivan run on a night where there wasn't much room to run put the Trojans deep in War Eagle territory, and then Nehemiah Brooks' punt rolled dead at the 4.
Suddenly, Wagener-Salley needed to go 96 yards in 31 seconds to keep its dream season alive. The War Eagles got about a third of the way there before they ran out of time.
"We just picked the wrong night to have a bad game," said Wagener-Salley head coach Willie Fox. "We had four turnovers all year. I don't know what we had tonight, but it was at least six or seven counting onside kicks. Ridge Spring, they just outplayed us. They played well, and you've just got to tip your cap to them. They're well coached, and they're a good football team. We didn't play very well. All that coupled together ends up with us losing a football game."
The War Eagles gave it away six times, including four in the first half. RS-M recovered two muffed kicks and two fumbles in the first 24 minutes and led 20-14 at the half.
Leaphart got the scoring started with a 42-yard bomb to Ligons for a 6-0 lead just 2:14 into the game. Wagener-Salley answered with a 55-yard scoring drive that ended with a 15-yard Gaige Starnes touchdown run on the final play of the first quarter for an 8-6 lead. The War Eagles, because of the turnovers, only ran three offensive plays in the first 6 minutes of the game.
Dean recovered another Wagener-Salley fumble and returned it 84 yards for a touchdown and a 12-8 lead midway through the second. Kaleb Shaw and Sullivan traded rushing scores from there, leaving RS-M ahead by six at the break.
Wagener-Salley retook the lead with a quick scoring drive that ended with a 1-yard Jhuatieq Davis touchdown run with 4:53 left in the third quarter, but Leaphart and the Trojans took it right back with two throws.
Daniel Harris caught eight passes for 116 yards to lead the Trojans' passing attack. Ligons and Nerulus each surpassed 50 yards and caught a touchdown pass. Sullivan, limited to 2 yards on his first five carries, ended the game with 67 yards and a touchdown on 13 attempts.
Kevin Jackson led the War Eagles with 105 rushing yards, and Starnes added 82 and a score.
Smith said during the week his offensive and defensive lines would have to play much better against the War Eagles' imposing fronts, which led to an average margin of victory of 40 points per game this season.
"I felt like we did," Smith said. "They're good. That's a darn good football team. (Fox) has done a heck of a job. But tonight, we got them."
RS-M reached its fourth Upper State title game in the last seven years but had lost the previous three. Now the Trojans, the third-place finisher in Region 3-A who reached this stage by knocking off second-seeded Blackville-Hilda in triple overtime, are back in the state championship game for the first time since 2006. They'll face defending champion Green Sea Floyds at 8 p.m. Friday at Benedict College.
For Wagener-Salley, it's a heartbreaking finish to its best season ever. The War Eagles suffered painful losses in previous state semifinal appearances in 1978 and '86, but this one may very well be the toughest one yet.
"What a group this was, man. This is the best group that's ever played here. These seniors are the best group that has ever played here," Fox said. "They've won more games. They've done more going farther into the playoffs than any group that's ever been here. They've earned everything they've ever gotten. Tough way for them to go out tonight. Picked a wrong time to have our first loss."