Grown men had tears in their eyes. Hugs were exchanged freely while friends, family and fans wrapped themselves around a Camden football team like, possibly, never before.
Following a taxing week in which the CHS football squad found itself on the front page of papers for all the wrong reasons, the Bulldogs, somehow, pushed it aside and put together a solid 48 minutes of football to come away one of the most memorable and emotional victories in the program’s storied history Friday night.
With eight starters not in uniform for the contest at Zemp Stadium due to South Carolina High School League (SCHSL) sanctions stemming from the previous week’s post-game fracas with Dreher, the Bulldogs chalked up their third straight win in upending Richland Northeast, 16-6.
Suspensions depleted the Dogs of their leading rusher along with other key players. Head coach Jimmy Neal and staff plugged in those holes and pushed all the right buttons as the Dogs improved to 5-4 on the season and, more importantly, 3-1 in Region 4-AAA. CHS is tied atop the six-team circuit along with A.C. Flora and Dreher, which with all its suspensions, upset Chapin, 35-33.
Camden could learn its post-season fate as early as this week, since the school will appeal its SCHSL-imposed playoff ban at a hearing Thursday at the organization’s offices in Columbia. Dreher has also indicated that it intends to appeal its post-season ban.
In a game played in almost surreal circumstances with the two sides not exchanging handshakes after the contest and with the game officials controlling things from the coin flip, Camden received a heartfelt pre-game talk from former Bulldog and retired 15-year NFL veteran Vonnie Holliday which set the tone for this night.
Following a week in which sleep was simply a rumor to him, Neal looked like a new man just moments after his team exited what was a raucous victory scene in their locker room. He said this victory and the week leading up to the game displayed Camden fans at their best.
"It was great; absolutely great," Neal said. "It was a wonderful victory for our team. We had so many people in this community who did so many specials things. They made phone calls and came by to see us. They cared about those players and fed them (Thursday) after practice.
"So many people just showed a lot of love to our players and wanted them to keep their heads up and hang in there. It was a neat, neat thing. That’s what Camden’s all about and, we sure do appreciate it."
Throughout the week, Neal refused to refer to those who were getting their chance to start as backups. Instead, he took to calling it the "next man up’ approach and those players shined in their turn under the bright lights.
William Cobb received his first start at running back and the 190-pound sophomore rushed for 79 yards on 16 carries, both career bests. Sophomore Tariq Johnson, a converted guard, got the nod at center and the exchanges to quarterback went off without a hitch. And freshman Jerico Murphy started at cornerback and had a strong game there, but it was his 59-yard kickoff return just before halftime which led to the game-winning touchdown for the hosts.
Murphy’s return came after the CHS defense tightened up after the Cavaliers had a first and 10 from the Bulldogs’ 17. RNE quarterback Eric Brown went after Murphy on second and third down incompletions, forcing the guests to go to kicker Tobi Bogarin, whose 32-yard field goal with 32.8 ticks left in the first half clock cut the Bulldog lead to 7-3.
With his team set to receive the second half kick, Neal admitted that his offense was prepared to run out the clock and carry a four-point advantage into the locker room. Murphy changed those plans and, in a hurry.
Taking Bogarin’s kick at his own eight, Murphy sped through the middle of the Cavs’coverage before being dragged down by the kicker at the RNE 42. With D.J. Wilson having a mismatch with his man, quarterback Jaylen Nelson wasted little time in going to his 6-foot-4 wide out as on the first play, Wilson went over a smaller defender to grab the fade pass for a touchdown. Nelson Semple followed with the PAT kick and with 15.7 seconds left before intermis
sion, the Dogs would take an 11-point cushion into intermission.
"Jerico coming over (to defensive back) was sort of an out of the blue thing," Neal said of moving the 5-foot-10, 190-pounder from wide receiver to cornerback. "What a big return that was. We had already decided that we were going to take a knee after they kicked off and go into halftime leading 7-3 and be quite content.
"The next thing you know, we’re throwing the vertical to D.J. and he makes a great catch."
The late-half score allowed the hosts to go into a more conservative, melt down the clock mode, in the second half.
RNE is also a clock-control team and its first three points ended a 14-play, 57-yard drive which ate up more than four and a half minutes. After CHS went three and out to open the second half, the Cavs put in a similar drive as they went from their own 49 to a first and 10 at the CHS 13. Again, the Dogs’ defense came up big forcing a 36-yard Bogarin field goal try, which sailed wide left. The series ate up five minutes as the Dogs dodged another bullet.
Camden would then grind its way from its own 20 to the RNE 33, using a 29-yard Nelson-to-Wilson pass followed by Cobb’s 18-yard carry. A dropped pass on fourth and eight from the 33 turned the ball back to the Cavs, who after an exchange of punts took over from their own 49 with 8:18 left in the game.
Cobb gave the Dogs a between the tackle presence with his straight-ahead, downhill running style.
"William Cobb did an outstanding job. He got us some first downs and did some good stuff," Neal said. "He busts through there. He runs well and those guys have to tackle him because he’s a danged bull."
On the ensuing RNE series, it was sophomore Eric Brown back at quarterback after having flip-flopped with 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior Simeon Kelly. Brown hooked up with Devion Brown for a gain of 26 for a first down at the CHS 22. Three plays and five yards later, the guests called on Bogarin whose 34-yard field goal was true to trim the deficit to 14-6 with 6:20 remaining.
Needing to eat up time and pick up first downs, Camden took over from its 20. Cobb went for 12 yards on first down to give the Dogs a new set of downs. On third and 10 from the 32, Nelson went to tight end Chase Truesdale on a seam route and the 6-foot-6 senior went between two defenders to come up with the 26-yard reception at the RNE 42.
"What a great call by Coach (Daniel) Sisk," Neal said of the pass to Truesdale. "It was 242 Vertical and, they bit on it and (Nelson) threw it right in the hole. It was a great job by Chase making a play there."
Senior fullback Dillon Price came up with another big third down grab as he took a Nelson offering and picked up eight yards on a third and six from the 38 on a play in which Truesdale drew the safety toward him, leaving Price alone in the flat. Cobb would then go up the gut for 20 yards to set up a first and goal from the eight, only to have a turnover give the ball and, hope, to RNE with 1:46 to play in the game.
The Cavs would move the ball to their own 40 with 20.8 seconds left. On second and 10 from that spot, sophomore defensive tackle Donavan Engram broke loose and grabbed Brown, twirling the senior quarterback for what was to be a sack. Brown, however, fired the ball backwards as it rolled through the end zone for a safety with 9.6 seconds to play to put this one on ice.
"Our defensive line came in and played well," Neal said. "Nick Jenkins played a good game and Donavan Engram had that sack which caused their guy to throw the ball out of the end zone. Troy Radden played well in there. Those are two sophomores (Engram and Radden) who, last week, were playing on jayvees for us."
It was the Camden defense which set up the night’s first touchdown as on the first series of the game, junior safety Ben Hayes picked off a Brown pass at the Bulldogs’ 34 and returned the pick to the RNE 47.
A scrambling Nelson ran for four yards on third and three from the 40 for the Dogs’ initial first down. On fourth and eight from the 34, he hooked up with Wilson for a gain of 21 to the 13. Nelson then called his own number on first down with a 12-yard run which set up Price’s one-yard plunge for a 7-0 lead with 5:27 showing on the first quarter clock.
RNE dented the scoreboard for the first time after taking control of the ball from its own 28 following a Parker Rankin punt. The Cavs, methodically, moved the ball down the field with Brown and Kelly dividing the signal-calling chores. Brown hit wide out Demarius Holliday with a 26-yard pass at the CHS 49 to give the drive a boost.
Kelly took over from there, using runs of four and six yards to give the Cavs a first down at the Camden 17. But the Dogs came up big on defense, a recurring theme on this night, when their backs were to the wall as RNE settled for a 32-yard Bogarin field goal with 32.8 seconds left before the break.
"The defense was unbelievable," Neal said of a unit which was on the field for 60 RNE snaps. "They hung in there like an old, rusty nail. They made (RNE) earn everything they got. We missed a tackle or two in the first half but for the most part, I thought we did an outstanding job against those guys.
"(Inside linebacker) Brandon McCaskill and his leadership and (outside linebacker) Tyrel Smith, what a player he is and making plays over and over and over. And (outside linebacker) Omar Mingo made a lot of plays because they were stressing us. I thought their coaches did a great job of stressing us all over the field instead just toward or, away from the tight end."
Neal said he was glad to get what he called "a tough week" behind his team. "Those kids and what they’ve been through," he said, "I feel so good and so happy for them. Now we’re just hoping that good things happen for us (with the appeal) on Thursday."
Bulldog Bites:Neal said his team’s pre-game routine Friday did not vary much from any other Friday. "We did what we always do," he said. "We talked about things which are important to this program. We talked about situations that we expect our guys to be in and what they were going to have to do. There wasn’t going to be a whole lot of subbing going on; there was some but not a great deal." … Rankin took over the punting chores from Nelson Semple, who came in for his first offensive play of the season and took a reverse for 19 yards and a first down on third and nine from the 30 … Nelson completed seven of his 16 passes for 136 yards with Wilson making three grabs for 83 yards … RNE ran the ball 36 times for 94 yards while throwing for 126 yards giving the Cavs 203 yards in offense on 60 snaps … Vonnie Holliday was in town not only to see his alma mater in action, but to watch his cousin, RNE wide out Demarius Holliday … In the old habits die hard section, when Nelson took a knee to run out the clock to end the game, many of the 22 players on the field, instinctively, shook hands and patted each other on the back before being reminded by their coaching staffs to head to the locker room … A large delegation of CHS fans and family members waited in a roped-off area near the team’s locker room and greeted the players with cheers, tears and hugs when the players emerged from the post-game meeting with Neal and his staff.