As the wins have piled up for Bluffton this season, one of the things that has most impressed Ken Cribb is the way his players have been able to shrug off any mounting pressure.
At the same time, it does come with the occasional anxious worry.
“That’s a loose crowd,” the Bobcats coach said with a hint of exasperation. “I don’t know if they know any better. Too loose for me. But it doesn’t seem to faze them.”
Certainly not to this point. That said, the unbeaten Bobcats’ pursuit of a Class 3A crown enters a new phase with the playoff field now reduced to 16 teams. No more mismatches, starting Friday night when Lake City (9-2) pays a visit to the Lowcountry.
“Everybody that’s left is quality football teams,” Cribb said.
Especially in the Lower State, which features three of the top four teams in the final Class 3A rankings before the playoffs. No. 4 Brookland-Cayce is the likely opponent for Friday’s winner, with powerhouse No. 1 Dillon lurking one bracket over.
It’s uncharted territory for these Bobcats (11-0), none of whom had experienced a playoff game until last week’s 56-6 romp over Swansea.
What they have done, though, is take care of business at every step thus far, with Cribb laying down internal challenges when needed to keep his players focused.
Two weeks ago, the Bobcats went on the road to claim the Region 8 title in a grind-it-out battle against Wade Hampton. Last Friday, Cribb challenged his team to start fast, and they responded with 28 first-quarter points.
Cam Bent took back the opening kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown to set the tone that night.
“They have fun with it, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Cribb said. “They don’t get too tight. They just stay loose and play. And the more relaxed they are, the better they’ve seemed to play.”
Though the Bobcats lack a formal playoff pedigree, they do have experience from recent seasons in the state’s top classification, facing a steady diet of “Big 16” foes. The High School League’s expansion to five divisions, plus the split that created May River High, dropped Bluffton back to Class 3A this year.
“The way I see it, this group is used to playing such competition as Fort Dorchester, Summerville, Effingham County,” Cribb said. “It’s just different. So maybe that’s why they’re so confident and relaxed. It just doesn’t get much better than that level of football.”
Lake City likewise has powered through much of its schedule, suffering its only losses to traditional powers in Dillon and Class 4A Hartsville. The Panthers have a spread offense that has topped 35 points on eight occasions this season, including last week’s 37-13 playoff win over Bishop England.
Cribb likened them a little to Hilton Head, which took the Bobcats to the final play in a 25-22 thriller, but perhaps with more athleticism.
“They fling it,” the coach said. “Hilton Head has some players like Lake City, but Lake City probably has more than normal. It should be a good game.”