20-Years Later: Bulldogs RULE and REUNITE
by Cindy Crosby | September 20, 2017 10:18 am
Last Updated: September 20, 2017 at 10:33 am
1997 Walterboro Bulldogs State Championship Football team to be honored Oct. 6 at Cougar Stadium
By CINDY CROSBY
“You’re 15 or 16 or 17 and you play for the Walterboro Bulldogs and a week ago you were grinning with pleasure as Coach Leroy Riley hung that state championship medal around your neck.
“A week later people are still slapping you on the back and you still smile or even let out a yell of delight if nobody else is around.
“When you’re 17, you’re convinced you’re immortal. But that’s a paradox because the future seems impossibly far away. You can’t quite grasp the idea of ever being 40 or 30 or even 25. You can’t possibly conceive that you have become a major part of Walterboro’s football history.
“But it’s true. In the year 2012 or thereabouts, another Bulldog squad will reach the state championship game. As part of the preview coverage, someone like me (naturally, I assume it will be me) will call some of you. Maybe you’ll still live in the county, but it could be anywhere — Columbia, Greenville or out of state.
“You’ll have a job and a family and tons of responsibilities and you’ll be light years removed from high school football. But you’ll willingly look back to the night of Dec. 5, 1997, and you’ll remember the bright lights of Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia and the thousands of screaming fans and all the absolute elation and relief when you realized you had finally subdued a stubborn Hartsville team.
“I’ve already done this kind of story before. A few days before the 1995 squad played for the state title, I called a bunch of guys who played in the ’83 championship game. They had a great time talking about the ‘good ole’ days’ that for them really were just that.
“Someday, so will the ’97 Bulldogs… To all these Walterboro Bulldogs, just wait. At some point in the future, we’ll talk again about Dec. 5, 1997.” – Rob Novit, former sports editor at The Press and Standard and currently retired; excerpt from “Walterboro’s Football History will never be the same” (The Press and Standard, Dec. 12, 1997)
Rob Novit certainly had an eye toward the future when he penned this article the week after the Walterboro Bulldogs defeated Hartsville 28-27 in the Division II-AAAA State Championship held Dec. 5, 1997 at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.
After finishing 7-and-3 during the regular season, the Bulldogs went on to defeat Aiken, Westside and Berkeley in the playoffs, before aligning to play an old nemesis, Hartsville, for the Division II-AAAA State Championship.
The Bulldogs led 28-0 at the half, but the Red Foxes dominated the second half, scoring 27 unanswered points. With 52 seconds left in the game, Hartsville opted to attempt a two-point conversion instead of kicking a field goal to tie the game and force overtime.
That decision caught Walterboro off-guard, as they had their kick-block team already in place. With no timeouts remaining, the Bulldogs could not make substitutions.
And, that is where fate stepped-in.
Delshaun Wilkey and Jason Lingard chased down Hartsville’s quarterback, preserved the win and sealed the state title for the Walterboro Bulldogs.
Now, 20 years later, the Walterboro Bulldogs will step on the field again.
This time they are stepping on the field to be honored as part of Walterboro’s football history – just as Rob Novit predicted 20 years ago.
On Friday, Oct. 6, the Colleton County High School Athletic Department will honor the 1997 State Champion Walterboro High Bulldog Football team during the region game against Beaufort High School with a 7:30 p.m. kick-off planned.
In addition, Bulldog players, along with their families, are invited to participate in a tailgating area for the team where they may enjoy a complimentary meal beginning at 6 p.m. in the CCHS Athletic Booster Club parking lot. Players will receive one complimentary ticket for their admission to the game and special seating will be reserved for players and their families.
Perhaps most excited about the upcoming anniversary is the man who roamed the sidelines 20-years-ago on a frigid night in short-sleeves, who led the Bulldogs to the championship title — Coach Leroy Riley.
“This will be a great opportunity to reconnect with a special group of young men,” said Riley. “We haven’t had the opportunity to get together due to time, distance and living our lives. The players had an opportunity in 2007 to reconnect for the 10-year anniversary when they were honored then, but as the head coach at the high school at that time, I had little chance to see and talk to them. Since I am now retired from coaching, this time will be different for me.”
When asked what made the 1997 team special and set them apart from other teams, Riley admitted it was a combination of talent, character and love for the game of football.
“This team certainly had talented players,” said Riley. “A number of players went on to have successful college careers: Antione Nesmith, Keith Kelly, Damein Cunningham, Lonnie Nettles, and Delshaun Wilkey. Two other traits stood out on this team. This was a team of young men who had great character and loved the game of football. Whether it was at practice or in a game, they went all out. They loved the game of football so much that they gave their best effort, even if they were on the scout team. This, in turn, made everyone have to step up and become better.”
Although retired from coaching, Riley stays involved with the youth in Colleton County as an educator at Colleton Prep Academy and a minister at Lifesong Church.
“I don’t believe that the basic components of a successful program have changed much,” said Riley. “You need strong administrative support, a quality coaching staff, and a plan for maximizing your players’ physical potential and mental attitude. I strongly believe that these will always be the key components for success at the high school level.”
Does Riley believe the game has changed over the past 20-years?
“I suppose strategy-wise, most teams back then were QB-under-center style offenses with more emphasis placed on the running game,” he said. “Today, shotgun style offenses are the norm and the emphasis is on the passing game which is more prevalent.”
Riley is asking that all players contact him to RSVP by Sept. 25. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook. He is also requesting that players spread the word their former teammates to help get the word out about the upcoming event.
“I know this may be short notice, but the ’97 Team can pull it off,” said Riley. “I am looking forward to seeing you guys again.”
Members of the 1997 included: Kelly Ferguson, Gerrodney Garrett, Harry Smalls, Kyle Coker, Antione Nesmith, Delshaun Wilkey, Davey White, Kentrell Daniels, Damein Cunningham, Billy Ballard, Terrance Adams, Bobby Brown, Kentrell Fields, Dante Roberts, Sedrick Wright, Kent Whetsell, Jermaine Brown, Daerol Ancrum.
Also, Barry Sweat, Keith Kelly, Derrick Bright, JaRonald Varner, Jimmy Lloyd, Robert Bodison, Shaun Wilson, Grover Blain, Johnny Green, Darell Washington, Quinten Akins, Dwayne Frazier, Brandon Barwick, Anthony Wright, Tony Edwards, Jason Lingard, Joey O’Quinn, Anton Cochran, Philip Duncan, Jason Bright.
And Luca Quinones, Chris Martin, Lonnie Nettles, Lewis McLauren, Adam Demers, Charles Manigault, Aron Frakes, Tracy Hiott, Dante Brown, Nie Bowman, Arthur Mays II, Joey Tucker, Kirk Walker, Andre Fishburne, Chris Collins, Aaron Ellison.
Coaching staff included: Coach Leroy Riley, Andy Connor, Denver Cromer, Jeffry Edwards, Brian Reid, Joey Ritter, Rich Roderick, Kenneth Schofield, Brian Strickland, Jason Steiglitz, Robert Driggers (JV), Russell Polk (JV) and Jimmy Reed (JV).
**Next week, we will check-in with a few former players and see where their roads have taken them.