It's not difficult to pinpoint many of the reasons Hilton Head Christian Academy has reached the SCISAA Class 2-A state championship game in four of the past five years -- the Eagles' offense is always loaded with talent, and the defense has been one of the best in SCISAA at forcing turnovers year after year -- but one quality that coach Tommy Lewis believes to set his team apart is less obvious to the casual observer.
It's that close-knit feeling every coach strives to foster.
"All of our coaches do a great job of building relationships with the players they coach," Lewis said. "Building those relationships is a huge part of anything, whether it's business, your classroom, your church. Wherever you are, relationships have so much to do with success, and I think we've been able to do that here over the years. I think we've really built a program that is predicated on building relationships."
Of course, the family atmosphere is more than just a metaphor for the Eagles. Family ties between the roster and the coaching staff have run deep over the years, and that's the case again this year. Defensive coordinator Vinnie Emery's son, Ryan, is a two-way starter at receiver and safety, and assistant coach Shannon Smith's son, also named Ryan, is an anchor on the defense at outside linebacker.
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The Smiths and Emerys have been a part of each of the Eagles' state championship teams. In 2006, older siblings Patrick Smith and Aaron Emery were key defensive players with their fathers as assistant coaches, and that tradition has been passed down to the younger siblings the past two years.
"It's nice having your dad as a coach," Ryan Emery said. "I pretty much always know what I'm doing, because he drills it into my head all the time. If I mess up ... I can't mess up."
SOMETHING ABOUT SUMTER
If they were simply going off their 39-10 win at Thomas Sumter on Sept. 17, the Eagles might expect to breeze to their second consecutive title. Hilton Head Christian racked up 389 total yards while holding the Generals to 201 total yards in that game, as Luke Sirgo passed for 240 yards and four touchdowns, hooking up with Alex Martin five times for 193 yards and three scores.
But the Eagles know enough from Thomas Sumter's eight-game winning streak since then -- during which the Generals have allowed 44 points and posted four shutouts -- to realize they'll have their hands full, and what they've seen on video while preparing this week backs up that belief.
"We're expecting Thomas Sumter to come out and prove that the first game was a fluke, that they deserved their No. 1 rating that they've had most of the year," Lewis said. "We do not expect a four-touchdown cake walk. That's for sure."
The Eagles know first-hand how tough it is to beat Thomas Sumter in the postseason. The Generals knocked Hilton Head Christian out in the semifinals in 2008, the only year since 2006 that the Eagles haven't reached the title game.
"That sophomore year memory just keeps on haunting me," said Sirgo, who threw three interceptions in the 46-21 loss in Sumter. "I just want to go out there and finish business my senior year."