Blake Raley always had high hopes for the first graduating class of Hardeeville High School, but after opening the season with three straight losses, the fourth-year coach started to lose his faith.
"I probably lost more than (the players) did," Raley said. "Deep down, I didn't know what direction we were going."
Nine weeks later, the Hurricanes find themselves in the Lower State championship game.
Hardeeville defeated Denmark-Olar, 24-7, in the second round of the Class 1-A Division II playoffs on Friday night, setting up a semifinal showdown with Scott's Branch next Friday.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Island Packet
The Hurricanes (7-5) have won seven of their past nine games, outscoring their first two playoff opponents by a combined score of 57-19.
"We got it going," Raley said. "Each game gets bigger and we're taking bigger steps every week. Hopefully we can keep it going."
Senior Donald Scott scored three of Hardeeville's touchdowns, two as a quarterback and one as a receiver.
His first was a 1-yard quarterback sneak, capping off a nine-play, 73-yard drive to open the game. After throwing interceptions on two of Hardeeville's next three drives, he was moved to receiver and ended the first half with an 18-yard touchdown pass from backup quarterback Philip Harris.
He switched back to quarterback in the second half, scoring his third touchdown on a 3-yard bootleg in the third quarter to put the Hurricanes up 18-0.
"At times, I prefer playing quarterback," Scott said. "Other times, I like playing receiver. Everybody just pulled together and played as a team. This was our first time in the second round and everybody wanted to go further. We overcame (Denmark-Olar) and now we're in Lower State."
After a 9-yard touchdown run by Denmark-Olar quarterback Greg Oxner, Hardeeville running back Michael Kinlaw drove the final nail in the coffin with a 21-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Kinlaw led the Hurricanes in rushing with 127 yards on 16 carries. Leading rusher Jarrell Knighton was contained most of the night but broke off a 48-yard run late, finishing with 92 yards on 16 carries. Charlie Morrison-Ford also had some big runs for the Hurricanes, gaining 42 yards on four carries.
"We've got two or three power backs and a lot of speed backs," Morrison-Ford said. "... I think we can go all the way."
To do that, the Hurricanes will first have to get past Scott's Branch next week, a team that defeated Lake View 32-6 on Friday. The game will be played at Scott's Branch.
Hardeeville's defense held Denmark-Olar to 125 yards of offense. Ulysses Gissentanner led the Vikings (5-7) with 42 yards on five carries. Oxner, the team's leading rusher, finished with 40 yards on 15 attempts.
"We had our chances, and (Hardeeville) kept us in the ballgame with some turnovers," Denmark-Olar coach Michael Jordan said. "... We just got beat by the better team tonight. That's the bottom line."