NINETY SIX — Rewind to Nov. 10, 2017.
The Ninety Six football team had just been eliminated from the Class 2A state playoffs by Saluda on Saluda’s home field. It was a hard-fought loss, 28-14 — nothing like the 43-23 drubbing the Tigers handed the Wildcats in September. In fact, Saluda had to rally from 14 points down to earn that playoff victory.
There on the goal line, after the final buzzer sounded, first-year Ninety Six coach Andre Woolcock had his 17 seniors line up so he could hug each one. He was clearly emotional as he embraced the players.
“That was just my way of telling those guys thank you because, as a senior, with a new coach coming in, it’s really easy to say, ‘I’m not playing for that guy.’” Woolcock said. “But they bought into the program. Guys like Bennie Williams and Evan Keller helped lay the foundation of my leadership of this program, and I can’t thank them enough.”
This year’s team has just seven seniors, but Woolcock is looking toward new strengths for the upcoming season as he watches his team during spring practice this week.
“I think we are more athletic this year,” the coach said. “We’re a little faster. You can’t replace that experience, but we definitely have guys in the program now who will do things the way I want them to do it. I’m looking forward to seeing how it works out this season.”
The Wildcats were 4-8 last year, but they played tough down the stretch and won a first-round playoff game against a favored Christ Church team. The program trajectory is headed in the right direction, the coach thinks, and he likes what he sees from this year’s squad.
“We’ve got different body types, so we are able to do different things on both sides of the ball,” Woolcock said. “It’s not going to be the same Ninety Six football team you saw last year.”
Last year’s team relied heavily on one running back.
“We’re still going to run,” Woolcock said. “That’s my philosophy as a coach. It’s going to be a different style of running the football. We’re going to be getting the ball into different people’s hands.”
The hands include those of Josh Booker and Tae Brown.
“I think we have enough backs to where one guy doesn’t have to carry the load by himself,” Woolcock said.
The coach likes what he sees from his big men up front.
“Our offensive line is definitely going to be a strength this year,” he said.
There are three returning starters on the offensive line: Cody Fleming, Michel O’Brien and Lennox Adams. Caljoul Gray also saw time on the offensive line in 2017.
“We feel really confident about our offensive line, and, as far as defense goes, we’re really relying on Kentavious Williams and Daquan Carter to make plays on that side of the ball.”
Woolcock says there is no replacing the 17 seniors, but he said there are players he has confidence in heading into the season this fall.
One of those guys Woolcock said he’s excited about is Andrew Gossett, who plays cornerback on defense and wide receiver on offense.
Still, Woolcock knows he will have to “walk by faith and not by sight,” he said, talking about the youth of this team.
“You don’t know what you are going to get out of this class because this class has never been seniors before,” Woolcock said. “We don’t know what to expect when you’re expecting those guys to step up and be leaders.”
How do things change for Woolcock as a coach in his second season in Ninety Six?
“I trust my coaches a lot more,” he said. “Not that I didn’t trust them last year, but last year was my first year. I’ve built a strong relationship with them in the offseason. The communication is a lot easier when you are in a comfortable relationship with someone.”
The coach said Williams and Gossett are among the likely competitors for the starting quarterback job.
“We have a player who has played that position before (Williams) and a guy who has never played that position (Gossett) battling for that position,” Woolcock said. “It’s definitely fun watching them and the competitive nature between those two. They like each other, but battling for that job — and being that the quarterback is the face of the program — both guys want that job.”
Even though it’s a new year, the coach said the playoff loss to Saluda still bothers him some.
“It’s a game I think about a lot,” he said. “I feel like that’s a game we should have won.”
Woolcock said it was nice to make it to the second round of the playoffs last year, but he wants more from this year’s team.
“I definitely want to progress every single year,” he said. “It was a good job that we won a playoff game, but that’s not my standard. I’m happy, and lucky, that I have a coaching staff that feels the same way I do.”