One by one, they entered the Wellness Center at Camden High School (CHS). Each one with an ear-to-ear grin as they exchanged fist bumps or handshakes with a group of coaches who were hurriedly assembling a Monday practice plan which, a few hours earlier, was not needed.
Less than four full days after they hugged teary-eyed teammates, thinking their season was over following last Friday’s 28-10 loss to Chapin, the CHS football team celebrated the reversal of an Oct. 30 S.C. High School League (SCHSL) executive committee’s upholding of a post-season ban handed down by SCHSL Executive Director Jerome Singleton. Singleton’s edict came six days after the Bulldogs and Dreher were involved in a post-game fracas following Camden’s 39-30 Oct. 17 victory at Zemp Stadium.
Believing in their cause enough to plead their case to the SCHSL’s appellate panel on Monday morning, CHS received the votes it needed, 4-1, to lift the post-season ban on the Bulldogs while also allowing Jimmy Neal’s troops to participate in a 2015 pre-season jamboree. Other restrictions, however, are expected to be handed down by the SCHSL later this week.
As for what the overturned decision means for the here and now, the Dogs --- who finished third in Region 4-AAA --- will travel to Belton-Honea Path, the Region 1-AAA runner-up, in Friday’s opening round of the AAA Upper State playoffs. It will be Camden’s first post-season appearance since bowing out in round one in a 36-28 loss to Berkeley in 2010.
Just as they did Oct. 30, the CHS team of head football coach and Athletic Director Jimmy Neal, Principal Dan Matthews, Kershaw County School District (KCSD) Superintendent Dr. Frank Morgan and KCSD legal counsel Mike Montgomery, returned to the SCHSL office in Columbia for what amounted to round two to plead their case.
The news quickly spread on social media after the panel’s vote. Shortly after the lift of Camden’s post-season ban, the panel also approved, 6-0, Dreher’s appeal of its post-season ban. Dreher will be the fourth seed from Region 4 and will travel to meet Berkeley in the AAA Lower State playoffs.
A smiling Neal said he felt good about his team’s chances given the fact their appeal would be heard by the seven-member appellate panel. The group is made up of one person being appointed by the legislative delegations of each congressional district. Members of the appellate panel may not concurrently serve as officers of any SCHSL subdivisions, conferences or regions and may not have served as a member of the SCHSL’s executive committee within the last three years.
A former CHS baseball player, Neal smiled when asked if he felt he and the four-member CHS delegation were heading into the batter’s box staring down at an 0-2 count. Different sets of eyes and ears, he said, saw and heard the incident differently than did the members of the executive committee who hired Singleton and to whom he answers.
“I’m sure that almost all of them had seen the fight in some form before,” Neal said of the panel. “They looked at it and listened to what they thought were the facts.
“I was excited. It was kind of like game day. I felt the same way (last) Thursday,” Neal continued as he described his feelings as he went into Monday’s mid-morning meeting. “You give it your best shot and you hope you have something that people believe in.”
For Matthews, he said the school would not have proceeded with the first or second appeal had he and Morgan not believed in Neal and the members of the football team.
On Monday, Montgomery showed an enhanced video of the post-game fight, which has higher resolution than the film shown to the executive committee Oct. 30. While that did not turn the tide in Camden’s favor, it did allow for a clearer picture for the panel to see. But it was Camden’s deed in dealing with the student-athletes involved in the incident which hit home more than any film could do.
Eleven CHS and nine Dreher players were given either one- or two-game suspensions. One player from each side was charged by law enforcement with third-degree assault and battery as a result of the investigation. Matthews said school and SCHSL protocols were followed quickly in the first few days following the incident.
“Coach Neal and I looked at the enhanced version of the video on Thursday after the initial appeal and shared it with our attorney and he showed that (Monday),” Matthews said. “I don’t know that it made any difference at all.
“I think the difference was the fact that Camden High and, for that matter, Dreher, handled the students through the league and who the schools identified as causing the problem. We handled our business and handled it in a proactive manner. That’s what, I think, made the difference.”
Neal said he did not try to play the role of lawyer by looking into the eyes of the members of the panel during the CHS portion of the appeal to see who might be on board.
“It was probably something I should have done, I guess,” he said. “I would look up every now and again.”
Neal admitted feeling better about the case during Montgomery’s presentation. Then, when the SCHSL team stated its case, he began to wonder if this would be a repeat of Oct. 30 when the vote was taken up.
“When panel members started asking questions, though,” Neal said, “I started feeling that we had a chance for this thing to work out. When the questions started getting asked, you’re starting to count who is sympathetic to your sensitive situation and what their thoughts were. It was starting to be in our favor, there.”
Matthews agreed with Neal in saying that when panel members started asking questions of both parties was when he could sense the tide starting to shift.
“After our attorney gave our presentation, there were several questions asked of me by the panel,” he said. “Then, the league’s attorney got up and gave (its) case. Once he gave his presentation, several members of the panel started asking questions which led me to believe, anyway, that I had a cause to be hopeful.
“The restrictive probation, which is a lesser level of the probation, seemed to be the way they were leaning and we felt good about that. The restrictive probation will allow us to be in the playoffs. We know we are going to have the $500 fine and we don’t argue that. There may be some other sanctions prior to next year and we’ll wait to hear the league’s official version of that and, we’ll see what happens.”
Matthews said the citizen’s group listened and understood as to how CHS has always gone about its business. That, he said, had to factor into the final vote. In that respect, Matthews said, there was very little difference between Monday’s presentation and the Oct. 30 one to two different committees.
“We felt like we had a good case. Dr. Morgan, Coach Neal, myself and our attorney did a very good job of presenting what we believed were the facts. Obviously, it made a difference to these gentlemen,” Matthews said. “We told the story the same way we’ve been telling the story which is that we believe our students who did wrong should be held accountable for what they did and we have done that. We’ve cooperated with the league every step of the way and we believe that we’ve identified the people who behaved inappropriately.
“We never felt that the entire team should he held accountable for the actions of a few. That’s the way we went with it, again. We take responsibility for those who did wrong ... absolutely. We felt the strict probation that the League had imposed was too severe, especially given our history. Camden High has a history of doing things the right way and, we don’t want to change that.”
Among the things which Neal said he learned in dealing with the SCHSL and its rules regarding unsportsmanlike conduct is that a student-athlete does not always have to throw a punch or be in the eye of the storm, so to speak, to be penalized for their actions.
“I think some things that people might be surprised about as far as being an infraction during a fight might be a lesson here,” he said. “When I sent the names in (to the SCHSL) of those who were involved in the fight and those who might have been, I had no idea that if you were in a pile pulling your players out that you could be penalized, especially if you go from one pile to the next to pull somebody out. I thought if you swung at or struck someone then you’re penalized and, rightfully so.
“We’re going to talk about that and go about it differently in the future with all our players on all our sports teams and make sure that this will never happen again. The decisions that you make can affect others and, it almost did.”
Both Neal and Matthews said they were cautiously optimistic when they went before both the executive committee as well as the appellate panel. Those feelings aside, this was one situation which neither man was proud to have been involved in and one which they plan on not having to revisit again.
What both said, in different interviews, was they appreciated the support and advice of Morgan who was in Camden’s corner from the first step of the entire process through Monday’s final verdict.
“I think one thing -- and we’re not surprised at this because we’ve always known it,” Neal said, “is that Dr. Morgan and Mr. Matthews have unwavering support for us, if we are right. They also told me that if we had been in the wrong on this, then we would have been out there in the wind. They were there; they saw it and they believed in us. They saw the tape and supported us 100 percent.”
There are life lessons to be learned from this episode, both CHS officials said. One is that your actions can affect others. The second is to fight for what you believe is right.
“I think our guys learned the lesson that you don’t give up. You battle and fight ‘til the end,” Neal said as to what the process means to his players. “We ask them to do that every day and I think that now, they believe that we’re doing the same for them; we’re not backing down”
Matthews added his own take on the situation.
“I think there are several lessons that are in play here, number one is the fact that you never give up. You fight for what you believe in,” he said. “Dr. Morgan was right by us, 110 percent, through the whole process. He was extremely supportive of Camden High School and our student-athletes. You are always right within the bounds of the process. And, if they came up with another decision (Monday), we were going to abide with whatever they came up with.
“We also learned that if you fight, you run the risk of putting other people in harm’s way. But we fight for what we believe in. We believe in the students and student-athletes at Camden High School and we were going to go to bat for them. We were going to fight the whole way for them.”