All signs pointed to a fifth straight Abbeville trip to the Class 2A state championship this season.
Instead, Saluda’s playoff consistency in recent years finally saw the Tigers make the breakthrough with a 32-28 win at Abbeville in Friday’s Upper State title game.
Saluda totally reversed the game’s narrative in the second half, forcing three turnovers and stopping an Abbeville running game that hasn’t been stopped by anyone all season.
That’s to include Saluda itself. The Tigers lost 48-20 at Hite Stadium in the regular season.
So, instead of another Abbeville trip to Columbia, Saluda will take to the field at Benedict College looking to write a completely different story.
The Tigers haven’t won or even appeared in a state championship since a Class 1A state title in 1963.
That year, the Tigers were coached by Mooney Player. Saluda played in the Lower State back then and won the Lower State title 32-25 against Lake View in what Player called “the worst game we’ve ever played.”
In the state championship against York, Saluda tied 6-6 after regulation and won by a penetration ruling. Penetration ruling was an old rule that awarded a point to the team that progressed furthest into the opposing team’s territory.
Quarterback Ray Hesse spearheaded the Tigers’ game-winning drive in the penetration period, running for a 1-yard touchdown to win it. The Index-Journal’s game recap in 1963 noted that when Saluda won the coin toss to start the penetration period, “York might as well have gone home at that point as the Tiger offense opened up.” Sounds quite similar to the present.
Despite the long state title layover, this Saluda team is no stranger to football in late November.
Coach Stewart Young has led his team to five straight runs to the third round or later in the playoffs. Abbeville and Southside Christian have stood in its way the past four years, but Young has a knack for getting his team to play its best in the playoffs.
Young has taken Saluda to the playoffs all but one of his six years as coach. The Tigers missed the playoffs in his first season. Saluda had lost to Abbeville in the playoffs each year from 2015-17.
Saluda will square off with a Barnwell team that defeated Oceanside Collegiate 42-31. The Warhorses lost to Abbeville in last year’s Class 2A state championship game.
The Tigers are averaging 46 points per game in their four playoff victories. As a third seed out of Region 2-2A, the Tigers had to beat three No. 1 region seeds to advance to the title game.