Sometimes the stars just align.
After four years of struggles against some of the Lower State’s behemoths, realignment took Bluffton out of the top classification for 2016. Beyond that, the split that created May River High dropped the Bobcats another notch to Class 3A.
Now factor in a senior-laden squad that returns 18 starters. Opportunity knocks, loudly.
“They’ve got the goals,” coach Ken Cribb said. “They know what they want.”
That would be a return to the Bobcats’ heyday at the start of Cribb’s tenure, when Bluffton lost just five games in his first three seasons, with a trip to the state title game in 2011 flanked by two semifinal trips.
The current Bobcats are probably a little young to remember much about those teams, though they’ve seen enough from old videos. It’s enough to make them want to rekindle the spark that was lost when Bluffton moved up to Class 4A.
“They’ve heard about those teams. They’ve watched them on film,” Cribb said. “They want to play up to that level. It’s a good goal, because those were some good kids.”
It’s already been a strong summer for Bluffton, which won two of the three 7-on-7 tournaments it entered, including the state title in Spartanburg. And that was without its biggest weapon in versatile Cameron Bent, still recovering from a torn ACL last season.
Cribb said Bent is getting close to full strength, though with Bluffton’s team speed they can afford to ease him back into play.
“We’ve been real safe, and he’s been taking his time,” Cribb said. “Hopefully he’s going to have a future after this season. We just didn’t want to rush it and take a chance on him reinjuring it.”
Reviving the defense might be a more pressing concern, with the Bobcats having surrendered at least 32 points in each of their last five games. Linebacker Richard Jenkins and cornerback Cory McKie are the linchpins, though the key might be John Haupt’s return as defensive coordinator.
Haupt was Cribb’s coordinator during those three big years, before stepping aside for a year for family reasons. He came back as linebackers coach and got the old job back after Tommy Adams left for Union County.
“He brings a wealth of enthusiasm and knowledge,” Cribb said. “We feel good about where we are defensively. It could actually be the strength of our team this year.”
REGION: Class 3A, Region 8
COACH: Ken Cribb (seventh year, 51-26)
2015 RECORD: 5-6 (0-4 Region 8-4A)
KEY RETURNERS: RB Cam Bent, WR Tyrese Sandgren, QB Hunter Eldridge, LB Richard Jenkins, DT Jhabias Johnson, CB Cory McKie
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: No longer the small fry in a land of giants, the Bobcats’ experience and array of offensive weapons finds its groove in the early season and carries that momentum through region play. Though the road gets tougher in the playoffs, a break or two could take them deep.
- Aug. 20: vs. Screven County (at Statesboro, Ga.), 5 p.m.
- Aug. 26: vs. May River, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 2: vs. Beaufort, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 9: vs. New Hampstead, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 16: vs. Hilton Head, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 23: at Whale Branch, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 30: at May River, 7:30 p.m.
- Oct. 7: vs. Battery Creek, 7:30 p.m.
- Oct. 14: at Wade Hampton, 7:30 p.m.
- Oct. 21: Open
- Oct. 28: vs. Ridgeland-Hardeeville, 7:30 p.m.