Jerry Hatcher knew his Whale Branch Early College High School football team was at an early crossroads.
A 50-0 loss at Bluffton High School to open the season created doubts about the Warriors' mettle, though the Bobcats were a Class 4-A power. A trip to Hilton Head Island High School loomed, and Hatcher knew an 0-2 start could flush the Warriors confidence.
"I didn't want any moral victories," Hatcher said. "I wanted to go beat Hilton Head."
Whale Branch jumped on the Seahawks early and held on for a 29-28 victory, the biggest in the school's short history. Hatcher's team then turned back Battery Creek High School the following week in the first meeting between the closely connected schools.
The fast start set the tone for the Region 5-A schedule.
After a bad loss at Denmark-Olar, the Warriors responded with a victory at Estill, the program's first win over the Gators.
And after the Warriors fell a touchdown shy of defeating Allendale-Fairfax the final week of the regular season for the region title, the Warriors eliminated the second-ranked Tigers from the Class 1-A playoffs the following week on the road for the program's first playoff win.
"You got on the bus, you felt like you're going to win the ballgame," Hatcher said. "There was something different about them. I told them, 'You don't get many second chances in life. You're getting one.'"
The former Beaufort High School defensive coordinator is the Beaufort Gazette/Island Packet All-Area Football Coach of the Year for helping the Warriors reach another level by winning those key games.
Unfamiliar with much of his players when he first met them in the cafeteria back in the spring, Hatcher relied on one of his seniors to help guide the transition. Linebacker Trey Nelson, the Warriors' leading tackler and steady presence, stepped forward early on.
"He was the first one that kind of bought in to what I was doing," Hatcher said. "When he bought in, the rest followed suit."
Nelson wasn't the only leader. After the loss at Denmark-Olar, receiver Dee Delnaey asked Hatcher if the seniors could talk to the team alone. Hatcher gave them 10 minutes but did not intervene when the talks pushed past the 20-minute mark.
The Warriors won their next four games and five of their next six before falling in a rematch at Estill for a trip to the Lower State final.
Hatcher's offseason will include helping his seniors find a place to play in college, recruiting more linemen from the hallways and continuing to establish the strength program.
Hatcher said five or six players are close to bench pressing 300 pounds, and that a solid group of young players should help the Warriors compete again in 2013.
"I'm excited," Hatcher said. "I can't wait to get started."