It was tougher to get excited about high school football season this year than it usually is.
Only four area teams were coming off winning seasons -- only one of which won at least one playoff game a year ago -- and one of them, Hilton Head High, was clearly in rebuilding mode.
The public schools, in particular, finished the 2009 season with a whimper. None got out of the first-round of the playoffs, prompting an earlier-than-usual transition into basketball season in the Lowcountry.
It was difficult to fathom how things could be any better in 2010 -- even defending SCISAA Class 2-A champion Hilton Head Christian Academy looked like a team with too many holes to play deep into November -- so the enthusiasm didn't quite seem the same when the Friday night lights flickered on in August.
Little did we know that three local teams would still be playing 13 weeks later, prolonging what has turned into one of this area's most exciting football seasons in recent memory.
Surprises like that don't happen in a vacuum -- they're the product of several shocking developments along the way. So here are my top 10 biggest surprises of the season (in no particular order):
Ken Cribb is the winningest coach in Bluffton High School history. Chew on that for a minute. His first season coaching the Bobcats isn't even over yet, but with 11 wins already, Cribb is already two victories clear of Dave Adams and Jeremy West, who spent three years apiece coaching the team. Even if you expected Cribb to have great success at Bluffton, there's no way you saw that coming.
Luke Sirgo has developed into a legitimate dual-threat quarterback. He won't be confused with a track star, but Sirgo has steadily improved his ability to run the ball in his three seasons as Hilton Head Christian's starting quarterback, and with 164 yards Friday, he's over 700 yards rushing this season and is averaging more than seven yards a carry.
Hardeeville is playing for a Lower State title. After the Hurricanes' offense struggled through three consecutive losses to start the season, it looked like a once-promising campaign was going nowhere. But coach Blake Raley's team has won seven of its past nine games and is headed to Scott's Branch on Friday for the Class 1-A Division II Lower State title game. Pretty impressive for a 4-year-old school.
Ridgeland has risen to top-10 status in Class 1-A. As recently as a few years ago, the old Jasper County High School had become a perennial doormat of a football program. Not anymore. Friday's blowout loss at Bamberg-Ehrhardt notwithstanding, the Jaguars made a major splash this year, and they'll have 1,000-yard rushers Jerry Scott and Torray Amlett back next year, along with quarterback Xavier Capers.
Bluffton has as good of a Friday night atmosphere as any school in the area. If you attended any Bobcats home games that weren't against Hilton Head High over the past six years, you probably don't believe this. But it's true. With wins come fans, and Cribb's team puts on a show from the moment it takes the field with one of the coolest entrances you'll ever see from a high school team to the final whistle. The result is a major home-field advantage that really never existed before.
Ryan Emery is having one of the most productive seasons ever by a Hilton Head Christian receiver. It's a remarkable fact considering the numbers the Eagles' receivers have put up the past few years, especially because Emery entered the season with only 14 career receptions. But with seven catches Friday, he now has 48 for the season, two shy of Jonathan Gort's single-season school record.
Hilton Head Prep was one play away from playing for the state title. Not that it would have been all that surprising to think the Dolphins could get there at the start of the season, but considering all the injuries they endured and the fact they had just lost to Hilton Head Christian by three touchdowns two weeks earlier, Friday's gutsy performance was impressive.
Beaufort High faded at the end again. Not to be a downer, but I didn't see this one coming. The Eagles proved they could beat just about anyone in the state when they knocked off Summerville two weeks ago, and with three great running backs sharing the workload, it seemed they were built for the long haul.
The area produced four 1,000-yard rushers and a 1,000-yard receiver. That's an awful lot of production out of just 11 high schools, and it's a big reason why the local football teams were so much fun to watch this fall. The Ridgeland duo of Scott and Amlett each went over 1,000 yards rushing, as did Hardeeville's Jarrell Knighton and Thomas Heyward's Logan Mock (who also had 545 receiving yards). And Hilton Head Prep receiver Dimitri Lowry was an absolute monster, catching 93 passes for more than 1,400 yards. Those are video game numbers, on the "easy" setting, no less.
??? OK, I'm going to cheat and leave this last spot open. The way things have gone so far this season, I'm not ruling out anything. We have plenty of time left for one more shocker.