magine losing everything you inherited before you even had the chance to enjoy it.
The No. 1 national ranking, the longest winning streak in state history, the rare prestige that those who came before you had worked so hard to build, gone with a single loss just five games into the season.
Imagine the obsession of trying to earn it all back, attempting to repent with each postseason win that carries you closer to a state championship, the only acceptable end result.
Imagine exacting revenge along the way, the feeling of unbridled joy in eliminating the one who humbled you back then, the very reason this sense of reclamation is even necessary.
Wando shut out Dutch Fork, 2-0, in the Class AAAAA Lower State championship game Tuesday in Mount Pleasant.
The two-time defending national champion Warriors will defend their state crown against Upper State champion J.L. Mann in the AAAAA title match Saturday night in Irmo.
“There wasn’t a single player on this team who knew what it felt like to lose before this season began,” Wando coach Shilo Tisdale said of a team that replaced nine starters this season. “Once they felt that, I think they realized what was at stake. They really began to feel a sense of ownership once what they were handed was taken from them.”
Wando had won a state-record 58 straight games, including two state and two national titles, before falling to Dutch Fork in the championship game of the Capital City Classic in February. Most of the players of that historic run of success had graduated last spring, leaving youth and uncertainty behind to maintain an unreasonably high standard.
“Look over there,” Tisdale told a team of dejected faces following February’s loss to Dutch Fork. “Look how they’re cheering and celebrating. Look how much they enjoyed beating you. You remember this and use this as fuel. They finished our win streak. Let’s make sure we finish their season when it matters.”
Dutch Fork’s win over Wando catapulted the Silver Foxes to new heights. They climbed as high as second in USA Today’s Super 25 national rankings, a poll Wando was unusually absent from this season. They entered the Lower State title game still listed as high as second in the nation in some rankings, having shut out three of their first four postseason opponents, including a clean sheet against James Island, something Wando couldn’t manage in two tries this season.
The Warriors began the season ranked 10th in the Super 25 national poll. They fell out after the loss and never returned. They tumbled from first to third in the state rankings and remained there the rest of the regular season.
“We knew that’s supposed to be us, where they were,” said Wando junior Kevin Wray still catching his breathe more than 10 minutes after the final whistle had blown. “We wanted it back so badly. The program that our brothers — the seniors that have graduated — the dynasty they built, we wanted to get that back. We let them down before. We weren’t going to again.”
Neither side could break through in a scoreless opening half that required Wando goalkeeper Logan McCoy to sacrifice his body on several acrobatic stops in traffic. Dutch Fork senior keeper Graham Lee was called upon several times as well. Owen Hamilton nearly snuck in a shot into the bottom corner in the 13th minute. Lucca Ferreira had a clean look nine minutes later that Lee stomped out with his boot.
“We had a few chances. I think it was nerves a little bit,” Tisdale said.
“Mentally imagine yourself putting the ball in the back of the net and the crowd cheering for you,” he told his team in the locker room at halftime. “Embrace that. Have no worries. Put the ball in the net and soak it up.”
Wando junior McCrady Andrews hopped a defender’s slide tackle in the 52nd minute and out of the deep corner twisted a cross to the far side of the goal where Wray was waiting for the go-ahead header.
“We don’t stop after we get that first goal,” Wray said of his team-leading seventh postseason score. “We know when we’re on top it’s hard for a team to overcome that. It just gets easier for us.”
Wando began firing away, pelting all sorts of deep rips off Lee and the Dutch Fork back line. One came flying in from 24 yards out in the 63rd minute. Lee stopped it with a diving save but Hamilton was waiting in the box to walk the deflection into the net for the Warriors’ second score.
Hamilton took off sprinting in celebration toward the home side of the stands that was as full as it had been all season; the line to get into the stadium stretched from the gate to the parking lot even after the game was already underway. Hamilton cupped his hands over his ears, a celebration several of this year’s players employ. It’s a nod to former Wando standout Charlie Marino and the past Warriors who used to use the same celebration during the postseason. It's a symbol of the Warriors embracing their history while still enjoying the process of earning their own merit.
“They enjoy every minute of it,” Tisdale said of his current team as a few former players were shouting for him some 50 yards away in a now empty stadium. “This is something special to be a part of. You see it in guys like this, our former players who still come to support the team.
“You earn the right to represent this team and that’s what this group has done so far in these playoffs.”
J.L. Mann is now the last thing standing between Wando and its fifth state title in the past nine years. The Patriots outlasted top-ranked Clover, 1-0, in the Upper State title game on Tuesday. Mann and Wando have met in the state title game three times since 2014, with the Warriors winning twice.
“We love this program and couldn’t imagine finishing this season any other way than with a win,” Wray said. “We’re going to win.”
Tisdale has a saying he uses often after wins, something about not wasting a moment to get ready for the next opponent. So the Warriors celebrated their victory with a few enthusiastic 10-yard sprints after the game — even the injured Evan Posnaski joined, hopping on one leg while dangling the other in a cast behind him — as Sweet’s 1974 hit "Fox on the Run" blasted over the stadium speakers.
“Okay, you think you got a pretty face. But the rest of you is out of place. You looked all right before … Take a run and hide yourself away.”
It seemed to be an appropriate ode to close a night of vengeance.
Bishop England fell, 3-2, at May River in the Class AAA Lower State championship on Tuesday.
May River junior Joel Fleek scored twice in the final three minutes to steal the state title bid from the Bishops, who had eliminated the Sharks from the playoffs the past two years.
Bishop England, who entered the playoffs ranked first in AAA, finish the season 25-5-2 overall.
May River will face Indian land for the AAA title Saturday in Irmo.
Oceanside advanced to the Class AA title game with a 5-0 win over Woodland Tuesday in North Charleston.
The Landsharks will face Southside Christian in the AA championship game Friday in Irmo.