September 29, 2009

Long road leads Byrnes to possible national title

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Duncan (S.C.) Byrnes' emergence on the national stage began in a manner different than most.

The path that led the Rebels (5-0) to six state titles over the last seven years and the No. 4 spot in this week's RivalsHigh 100 ranking actually started with a loss back in 2002 -- a game that almost didn't happen.

After an opponent canceled on Byrnes with just two weeks notice, then-head coach Bobby Bentley, who now serves as offensive coordinator, searched the Internet for a replacement and found Shreveport (La.) Evangel Christian, ranked No. 3 in the nation at the time, also needed a game.

The Rebels were willing to take on the challenge and made the 13-hour trip to the Bayou. Once there, Bentley realized his team had the potential for greatness, as it took a 10-0 lead into the fourth quarter.

"I wouldn't say we were ready for that competition then, but it was 10-0 in the fourth quarter, which was the first time Evangel had ever been behind in the second half at home," Bentley recalled. "So we were kind of like, 'Man, we can play with these kind of national teams.' It kind of added fuel to the fire."

Though Byrnes went on to lose 21-10, the game proved to be the Rebels' first step toward joining the ranks among the nation's elite programs. It was their last loss to an out-of-state opponent, and they went on to finish 14-1 that season, capped by a Division II-4A state title -- the first of four straight.

On Friday, the program's hopes for a first national championship are on the line when the Rebels travel to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. to play St. Thomas Aquinas (3-0), the defending national champion, ranked No. 1 in the RivalsHigh 100.

However, winning didn't always come so easily. The Rebels had some decent years in the 1970s -- when they went 68-39-4 and won the program's state title in 1976 -- and during a 80-39-1 stretch in the '80s, which included a second title in 1986, but Byrnes won just 41 percent of its games the next decade.

During Bentley's first two seasons, in 1995 and 1996, the Rebels won just three games, and at that point, he knew drastic changes needed to be made, starting with player development and strength and conditioning.

"I played here, and we had a lot of success in the 80s, but then in the 90s we really struggled," Bentley said. "When I came in 1995, we only had about 30 players and we were not that good. The guys worked hard to improve, and I can attribute it to getting better coaches and getting a speed and strength program, and we got more players dedicated to the system and it kind of took off from there."

Another key was building a program throughout the town - not just at the high school.

In 1996, the Byrnes coaching staff took over the area "little league" program, called the District 5 Youth Football Association, and began installing offensive and defensive schemes similar to what Bentley was using at the varsity level, including his pass-heavy, high-powered offense.

Players, who are all called Rebels but dress in different Byrnes colors, start learning the ways of the program in first grade, through flag football, and begin tackle football in sixth grade. The middle schools also run the same system, so by the time players get to the high school, they are well-versed in Rebel football.

"It took several years for people to buy into what coach Bentley was doing, but now what they have is a football program, not a football team," said athletic director Billy Young, who has been at Byrnes for 22 years in various capacities.

Though it also took several years for the results of Byrnes' involvement in the youth programs to show in the development of the varsity players, the system in place has proven successful. It's one reason why current coach Chris Miller hasn't made many changes since taking over the team in 2007 when Bentley took a two-year absence before returning to Byrnes this fall.

While other high school programs are adapting schemes and plays to new personnel each year, Byrnes is adapting the players to the system before they step foot in the high school.

"It's very important in how we run things around here, and it's an awful lot of fun seeing a bunch of kids throwing the ball around," Miller said.

As Brynes began to shape into one of the state's top programs, it became easier for the community to latch on to what the Rebels were doing.

Now, there's a sense of pride in the community evident not only on Friday nights.

"There became a bit of a swagger in the program once we started having some success," Bentley said. "We had 120 kids in the youth program then, and now we have over 400. A lot of momentum was gained through our youth program, where everyone wanted to become a Byrnes Rebel."

Senior quarterback Chas Dodd, a fourth-year varsity player who is committed to Rutgers, was one of those players. He got his start in the little league program and developed into a key asset for the Rebels, completing 79 of 116 passes for 1,321 yards and 18 touchdowns through just five games this season.

"I felt like I was a part of the team as a kid," Dodd said. "I was always looking at the bigger kids in high school, thinking how that would be me. I was looking for my chance."

Now the current brand of Byrnes players are enjoying their chance, and working for it.

Both Miller and Bentley credit the work ethic of their players who have dedicated themselves to the strength and conditioning program implemented by coach Mike Srock, who joined the staff in 1998 and had players working five days a week in the offseason. To this day, the Monday after winning a state title, players are back in the weight room, preparing for the next season.

"It's got a lot to do with kids work ethic, and the strength and fitness coach we have, Mike Srock," Miller said. "The work we put in during the summer and off-season with the strength program we have here, that's the biggest thing that drives the kids and keeps them where they are.

"It's a big commitment for the kids, but they've done it, and they've had success because of it."

Dodd said he and his Rebel teammates take pride in the tradition they've been a part of creating, and the hopes of yet another state title and a possible state title just make it that much more special.

"It's just awesome," Dodd said. "A bunch of these guys, I played little league ball with, and it's just an awesome opportunity to get to do this. People talk about how other places don't have what we have. It's not just about football here, it's building relationships and getting ready for life -- that, and all the work we put into it."

Bentley said the program was never built on winning championships, though.

"It's built on loving the players and trying to execute," Bentley said. "Right now we have a bunch of players that believe in what we are doing, and we have support of our administration, we have a tremendous fan base, and there are just a lot of positive things happening with our program that has taken off.

"Now we are expected to win titles, but I'm not sure back when we first started this run it was something that was a dream or just something that happened."

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