The Whale Branch Early College High School strength program has been at the forefront of the football team's focus from the beginning.
The Warriors didn't have the proper equipment for some time and, when they did, then-Warriors coach Rob D'Amato promised a commitment to players becoming stronger.
First-year head coach Jerry Hatcher also carries the creed. He wants Whale Branch players matching the numbers he saw as defensive coordinator at Beaufort High School. After a late start this season with Hatcher hired just before spring practice, the Warriors are making strides, he said.
The goal is to compete in games like the one Whale Branch faces at home tonight, when the Warriors meet undefeated Allendale-Fairfax to decide Region 5-A. The physical Tigers are the standard for the region, Hatcher said, and the team to supplant them will have to match and surpass their strength.
The Warriors have continued an offseason-type workout program during the season to make up for lost time.
"We're obviously stronger than we were in August, the whole attitude from the get-go was do it that way to try to catch up, to when we hit the playoffs, to be at least where we can compete physically," Hatcher said. "I think we're there as far as being able to compete, but we're not to the point we can line up and dominate people yet."
That level is what Hatcher sees when he watches the Tigers' film. Allendale-Fairfax, the top-ranked team in Class 1-A, is 8-0 and has only allowed 66 points all season.
On offense, the Tigers line up and pound the ball, averaging 344 yards per game rushing. Shrine Bowl selection Jahnari Devoe, junior running back Brandon Jordan and senior Jamaree Hartzog handle the bulk of the rushing duties. Quarterback Solomon McCormick has rushed for seven touchdowns.
McCormick, Jordan and Hartzog each average more than 10 yards per carry.
"They'll hit the corner and are gone or they'll hit the trap up the middle and someone misses a tackle, the kid cuts back and he's gone," Hatcher said. "You don't want to get in a foot race with these guys, because you're going to lose."
A victory would give the Warriors their first region championship and a home playoff game to open the Class 1-A playoffs. The postseason picture is more muddled with a loss, with seeding thrown to the S.C. High School League's points system.
"I told them (Wednesday), 'It's been a long ride,' " Hatcher said. " 'We've pulled in the parking lot, we're here. Let's see what we do now.' "
TONIGHT'S OTHER GAMES
Hilton Head Christian (8-1) at Hilton Head Prep (5-4), 3:30 p.m.
Last meeting: HHCA 33, HHP 7 (2011)
The skinny: Despite the Eagles having locked up their latest region championship, coach Tommy Lewis has no plans to rest starters or pull them early against the Dolphins. That's also the case for Prep, which has been all but eliminated from the postseason after going winless in its first three league games. Barring something unforeseen, this is the final game of coach Kevin Wald's inaugural season with the Dolphins.
Players to watch: HHCA RB Tyler Chisholm suffered a bone bruise on his clavicle last week against Palmetto Christian and will be a game-time decision. Should he be unable to go, the Eagles will take a running back by committee approach using Brad Meccariello, Nick Pirozzi and DeAngelo Clark. Dolphins RB Teron Daley, meanwhile, will try to spark the Prep ground game.
Keys to the game: The Eagles will have to avoid looking ahead to the first round of the SCISAA playoffs if they want to avoid an upset. How the Eagles perform in the possible absence of Chisholm may help dictate that. Expect the Dolphins to pull out all the stops to have a shot at the upset, seeing as how Wald and Co. have nothing to lose and no playoff game to look forward to.
Colleton County (0-9) at Bluffton (9-0), 7:30 p.m.
Last meeting: First meeting
The skinny: Colleton County is in the midst of a 32-game losing streak, with the latest coming in a 22-0 loss to Summerville last week. The only thing on the line for Bluffton tonight is a perfect record, as the Region 8-AAAA title won't be settled until next week. The Bobcats could stumble against the Cougars and still earn the region crown with a win next week at Summerville.
Players to watch: Colleton County relies on a double wing triple option, so Bluffton will rely on its speedy defenders to quickly recognize the play and bring it down. Defensive end Shamier Blackshear and tackle K.J. Ford could have big nights, as well as linebacker Jacquan Campbell. Quarterback C.J. Frazier threw for just more than 160 yards last week against Fort Dorchester, so the senior will likely try to put up big numbers against the Cougars' 3-4 defense.
Keys to the game: The Bobcats are, quite simply, the superior football team. But that was also the case a week ago, and Bluffton eked out just a 1-point win. Coach Ken Cribb will try to keep his players focused on tonight and not a week from now, when the region crown will be decided against the Green Wave. Bluffton can't afford to look ahead if it wants to keep its unblemished record intact.
Academic Magnet (6-3) at Battery Creek (4-5), 7:30 p.m.
Last meeting: First meeting
The skinny: Battery Creek's 71 points during a victory at Burke were the most points the Dolphins have ever scored in a game, surpassing their 64-point total in 2010. The Dolphins would secure third place in Region 2-AA with a victory. Academic Magnet has won its past three games to move to 3-3 in the region.
Players to watch: Academic Magnet's Stuart Walters has rushed for 1,179 yards and 21 TDs. The Raptors don't throw often, but if they do, Raheem Cooper will be waiting. Cooper leads Battery Creek with seven interceptions, tops in the area.
Keys to the game: Battery Creek will have to stop the Raptors' ground game. Academic Magnet averages 270 yards per game on the ground and fewer than 20 yards through the air. Tackling well will be at the forefront.
Beaufort High (3-6) at Fort Dorchester (4-5), 7:30 p.m.
Last meeting: Fort Dorchester 49, Beaufort High 45 (2011)
The skinny: The Eagles have dropped four straight, the past three to Region 8-AAAA opponents. Each of the past three meetings between the teams has been decided by 7 points or fewer. Fort Dorchester pushed undefeated Bluffton to its closest call of the season in Week 9, falling 27-26. The Patriots are 1-2 in region play, with losses to the Bobcats and Summerville.
Players to watch: Fort Dorchester's Charles Loftland rushed for three TDs during the loss at Bluffton, including a 51-yard dash during the second quarter.
Keys to the game: The Patriots speed in the backfield caught Bluffton off guard at times last week. The Eagles will have to try and contain Loftland to keep the game close, as it has been so many times in the past. The Eagles, out of the Class 4-A playoff picture, must contend with road crowds their final two games.
Ridgeland-Hardeeville (4-5) at Bishop England (8-1), 7:30 p.m.
Last meeting: First meeting.
Players to watch: QB Kevin Herbst is the engine that makes the Battling Bishops offense run. He's a danger running, throwing and distributing the ball. Jaguars RB Deo'vonte Doe is one of the are's top rushers. He's rushed 163 times for 1,248 yards and 13 TDs.
Keys to the game: Ridgeland-Hardeeville quarterback Derrell Myers missed last week's game, sitting out after a concussion. The Jaguars need him to play and they need to eliminate all of the turnovers and big-play lapses they made last week to have a shot at upsetting Bishop England.
Thomas Heyward (9-1) at Palmetto Christian Academy (7-2), 7:30 p.m.
Last meeting: First meeting
The skinny: This game is huge for the Rebels' playoff scenarios. If they win, they host the winner of Friday night's Calhoun Academy-Oakbrook Prep game. If they lose, they head to Florence Christian.
Players to watch: Rebels' QB JD Tuten is still banged up and can be expected to stay in the pocket as much as possible this week. Palmetto Christian QB JT Waters has rushed for more than 1,400 yards and 26 touchdowns and thrown for 1,000 yards and seven more scores, while RB Ryan Roe has rushed for more than 900 yards. Thye both average more than 7 yards per carry.
Keys to the game: According to Nic Shuford, the key to the game is slowing Waters and the option attack. " We've got to play disciplined, make sure we play our assignments," Shuford said. "It's tricky but simple at the same time if everybody does their job." The Rebels must also be productive on offense with a limited Tuten, who likely won't be 100 percent again this season.
Beaufort Academy (1-8) at Patrick Henry (6-4), 7:30 p.m.
Last meeting: Patrick Henry 56, Beaufort Academy 6 (2011)
The skinny: The final regular season game for Beaufort Academy. Patrick Henry has lost its past four games after opening the season with six wins. Beaufort Academy has dropped its past seven. Three of the Eagles final four games came on the road.
Players to watch: Beaufort Academy's Reyn Robinson rushed for 152 yards during last week's loss to James Island Christian. Eagles QB Tucker Trask threw a pair of touchdown passes. Patrick Henry's Paul Deloach is closing in on 2,000 yards rushing this season and has 23 touchdowns.
Keys to the game: The Patriots average close to 300 yards rushing per game and score an average of 38 points. Beaufort Academy, its tough season coming to a close, will have to find some motivation to stop the run on the road.