Mixed in with the state championships and lower state titles, the tournament mementoes and other sparkling hardware in the Oceanside trophy case is one particularly peculiar piece.
It stands about three feet tall, black and gold, with a worn football resting on top inscribed with “Oceanside 34 Gray 33” in black ink. A gold nameplate reads the same score, with room to add additional games in the years to come. But for now, just the one score.
The Pinnacle Trophy, as it reads across the bottom, is meant to serve as a symbol of a seemingly budding rivalry between sister schools Oceanside and Gray, one still very much in infancy but showing early signs of potential. The trophy is named for the Pinnacle Charter School Management Group that oversees the two schools. The prize belongs to the winner of the annual football game between the Landsharks and War Eagles until the two play again the following season. It rarely comes out of the case, though last winter was brandished by the Oceanside student section with a chant of "let's play football" during a basketball game between the two schools.
“It’s become a friendly rivalry,” Oceanide athletics director and coach Chad Grier said. “It’s great for our schools. They even made this nice trophy for it, which we’ve proudly displayed in our trophy case for the past year. I’m sure they would like to have it back, being that they’re the ones who created it.”
Oceanside’s one-point win over Gray in S.C. State’s Oliver C. Dawson Stadium last season was a strong opening chapter. This year’s version could be even better, a top-10 ranked matchup of two of the most explosive offenses in the state to be played in The Citadel’s Johnson Hagood Stadium in downtown Charleston.
“It’s a rivalry. Any time you play Oceanside in any sport, you want to come out on top,” Gray athletics director and football coach Adam Holmes said. “Our guys get up for it. I think Oceanside’s guys do as well. This year is probably even more compelling.”
Gray enters ranked eighth in Class AA. The War Eagles are 2-1 this season, recovering from a 62-47 season-opening loss at Gilbert with a 51-point win at Swansea and a 49-point win at Dreher.
The Gray offense is averaging 558 yards per game. Senior quarterback Hunter Helms, a Holy Cross commit, leads the state with 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns. His top target, Omarion Dollison, is the state’s leading receiver, a 5-foot-9 three-star prospect headed to Old Dominion.
“(Helms) is definitely a D1 quarterback. He can make all the throws, stretch the field vertically,” Grier said. "(Dollison) might be one of the best high school football players I’ve coached against. He’s that good. They’re explosive. But I think we’re pretty dang good too.”
Oceanside is ranked seventh in AA. The 2-0 Sharks climbed to No. 6 after opening the season with a 58-12 win over Baptist Hill and a 49-7 win at Savannah Christian (Ga.). They slipped a spot, though, forced by Hurricane Dorian to cancel last week’s game against Socastee while the rest of the state beyond the coast played on.
The Sharks are averaging 535 yards per game. Senior quarterback Sean Cooney has thrown for 626 yards and five touchdowns through two games. Senior running back Keegan Williams has rushed for 335 yards and eight scores. No player in the state has run for more yards or score more touchdowns in two games than Williams. Just two quarterbacks in the state have passed for more yards in two games than Cooney.
“Cooney does a great job of getting the ball out. He’s good at making his reads, strong arm,” Holmes said. “Keegan is one of the better running backs we’ll see all year, really good vision. You have to wrap him up. If not, he’ll cut it all the way back across the field and make a big play.”
Holmes saw Williams’ potential in last season’s matchup. Williams put together 265 total yards, while running for a touchdown, throwing one and catching another. Helms threw for 298 yards and three scores. Cooney wasn’t yet the full-time starter then. His addition to this year's game, creating an intriguing quarterback matchup, makes this year's version even more attractive.
Cooney acknowledges the potency of the Gray offense. He'll give credit where it's due. But he isn't ready to concede to the idea of an offensive shootout. The quarterback has too much faith in the rest of his team.
“I have a lot of confidence in my guys on defense. There are three parts to the game and my guys trust each other to do their jobs,” Cooney said. “This isn’t just any normal game for us. We know they have some weapons on offense but our team is built different this year.
“My guys are ready to go to war for each other and this rivalry will continue to stir the pot between the schools.”
Proximity isn’t a factor in the matchup. The game won't have any impact on region standings or playoff implications. The rivalry is instead fostered in the commonalities the schools share.
As public charter schools — a concept still relatively new in South Carolina and seemingly misunderstood by advocates of the more traditional format — both Oceanside and Gray have to fend off negative stigmas. Both have had to overcome scheduling issues, and a lack of a resources. Neither even have a home field to call their own. They mirror each other, one in the greater Charleston area, the other in the greater Columbia area. They understand each other’s struggles, share each other’s frustrations and are bound by their unique circumstances.
“People don’t understand what we are and assume the worst. So a lot of times we have to defend who we are and what we do because we are successful,” Grier said. “I think Gray understands that feeling as well. We're very similar in that regard.
“The fact is, if we weren’t successful, nobody would care.”
Rivalries aren’t to be manufactured. This isn’t that. Oceanside and Gray will forever be tied together, whether they play each other or not. Thankfully they do. They've both grown into legitimate contenders. The state rankings, the Pinnacle Trophy, the star players, the college venues, all of it has fast tracked the matchup into an intriguing rivalry.
Oceanside and Gray are two schools 125 miles apart with endless similarities in between. Professionally, physically, philosophically, they’re sister schools. Nobody wants to lose to a sibling.