Fruster finds success in first year in charge

By Rocky Nimmons

CENTRAL — The first year on the job was a success for Daniel football coach Jeff Fruster.

Despite his Lions’ first round exit in the Class 4A playoffs the Lions did show improvment from the previous season, posting a winning 6-5 record and even taking wins over long-time rivals Pickens and Seneca, both in convincing fashion.

The Lions entered into the 2016 season with all things new. The Lions were moving classification for first time since the early 1970s. No longer were the Lions in 3A, now the big cats had to step up to face some familiar foes, but also losing several that had been mainstays for decades. That alone would have been a huge change, but the Lions also had to face the season with a new head coach in Fruster, the team’s former defensive coordinator.

After a disappointing season a year ago that saw the Lions post their first losing mark in nearly a decade, the normally stable Daniel program was shocked to see longtime head coach Randy Robinson step down to take the head coach position at Berkeley High in the Lowcountry.

Despite all the changes, though, came a strange calm, as administrators stepped up and stabilized the Lion program by passing the mantle of head coach to Fruster, who won a state title during his time as a player in the blue and gold and served as defensive coordinator under Robinson.

The hire of Fruster meant the Daniel staff would remain almost entirely intact, and the Lions would not be forced to bear the burden of learning a new system under a new staff.

11-30 Page 1B.inddWhen the final classification realignment was decided, the Lions had indeed moved up to 4A. Several of their perennial rivals also joined them in what looked like a mini-Western 3A. The old Western 3A boasted eight teams, while the new Region I-4A had only five. But in those five were former region rivals Wren, Pickens and Belton-Honea Path, along with the Lions. Greenville, which also had stints in the Western 3A, rounded out the new region.

The Lions now had to fill six non-region slots on the schedule. Up first was a huge match for the young Lions, as the Berkeley Stags visited Central led by the recently departed Robinson.

There are certain moments that go down in history as milestones in a coach’s career.

The first victory is one of those milestones, but for Fruster, his career-opening win came with a significance many don’t get to experience.

Fruster’s Lions opened the season — and his head coaching career — at Singleton Field in Central with a 33-21 thumping of Berkeley.

The win signified a passing of the torch for the program, which has only had four head coaches over the last half-century.

“This win is something I cannot describe,” Fruster said after the game. “Hats off to my mentor, Randy (Robinson), the team he brought up the road, the way they fought after a four-hour bus ride, you can’t say enough about that team. He has a good group of kids. We might see them again, you never know.”

Next up, the Lions hosted in-county rival Easley. In what will go down in Pickens County football history as one of the wildest finishes that nobody saw, the Lions stormed back from an 18-point deficit to beat the Green Wave 29-28 in a game that finished after midnight following a pair of delays.

Most fans headed for the house following the call for a lightning delay that came just before the game entered the fourth quarter. Fans had just waited through a delay after Daniel’s Nick Taylor took a vicious hit near the Easley sideline. The injury halted play until an ambulance could get on scene and take Taylor to the hospital for treatment. The young Lion was released later in the night with no serious injuries.

Just as Taylor was taken from the field, flashes of lighting began to cover the sky. Play did resume, but only for a few snaps, as officials called for all players and spectators to head for cover until the lightning moved through the area.

The Lions, who were huddling in their locker room down 28-10 after just seeing a teammate being taken off the field by ambulance, could have thrown in the towel, but they had other plans. The Lions took the adversity that was given to them and turned it into energy. When the game finally restarted, shortly after 11:30 p.m., the Lions were in a different mindset. They were ready, and it showed, as the Daniel defense shut down Easley and the offense lit up the scoreboard with 19 points in the final quarter with less than 100 people in the stands.

“We are going to be the type of team that stays focused on never giving up,” Fruster said with excitement minutes after the final whistle.

Fruster said his coaches and players did not waste the down time during the break.

“I told them 12 minutes is an eternity in football,” he said. “You never know what will happen. You just have to keep fighting.”

And fight they did, coming out of the break like a rodeo bronco out of a chute, dominating 5A Easley over the last 12 minutes.

Next up was Seneca, and the Lions were rolling. Old foe Seneca felt what it was like to be thrashed by Fru’s crew, as the mighty Lions steamrolled the Bobcats 27-0 in front of a huge contingent of Daniel fans who made the trip to Tom Bass Field.

The game with Seneca was close through the opening quarter and a half, with the Lions only leading 3-0. But late in the first half, the Lions got momentum on their side following a huge blocked punt that led to a touchdown. Daniel followed that up with a three-play, 20-second touchdown drive that covered 68 yards just before the half to take control, and the blue and gold never looked back, cruising to a lopsided win over their longtime rivals.

11-30 Page 1B.inddWith three straight wins, the Lions had to travel to face perennial power Greer at Dooley Field. The Lions’ season-opening winning streak came to an abrupt halt with a tough 42-28 road loss.

Rex Brown/Courtesy The Journal
Although his team suffered a disappointing first-round playoff exit, first-year Daniel coach Jeff Fruster did lead his squad to a winning record, an improvement over the previous season.

The Lions hung tough most of the contest, but a 21-point Greer outburst late in the fourth quarter erased a 28-21 Daniel lead and handed Fruster his first career loss, dropping the team to 3-1 on the young season.

“We made too many mistakes — too many special teams mistakes, too many offensive mistakes, defensive mistakes,” Fruster said after the game. “I mean, you name it, we made a mistake doing it tonight.

The slide continued as the Lions were pounded by Westside a week later. Homecoming was unkind for Daniel as the Rams came in sporting a No. 1 statewide ranking and shellacked the Lions 41-3 in front of a huge crowd at Singleton Field.

Westside, which posted nearly 500 yards of offense in the contest, went ahead early and never looked back. The Lions did manage to stay within striking distance in the first half, going into intermission down 19-3.

“We didn’t do enough to win,” Fruster said in frustration after the game. “We had a tight game going into the second half. They were up 19-3. That’s a two-score lead. We just didn’t do enough to get the yardage or make the stops we needed to make.

“At the end of the day, that is our loss as a staff. We need to perform better. We have to come back to playing Daniel football.”

Following a week off to refocus the Lions looked to be cruising to their first Region I-4A victory as they jumped to an early 21-7 lead on the Wren Golden Hurricanes.

That is when the wheels fell off for the Lion defense, as the unit gave up three big plays that ended in touchdowns for the ‘Canes — for 58, 44 and 24 yards — on their way to the team’s third straight loss, falling to Wren 35-30.

The Lions also had to face the Canes without starting quarterback Ben Batson. Batson was lost on the offensive side of the ball with an injury early in the second half.

“We have known that Batson has been a little tweaked for a couple of weeks now, and once again that is poor planning on my part,” Fruster said.” I thought Noah Lupton stepped in at QB and was a little rusty at first. But he stepped up and made some good plays.”

The Lions bounced back a week later as they went out of region play to take on Ninety Six. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was enough.

The Lions got off their losing skid with a 34-33 come-from-behind victory over the Wildcats at Wilson-Campbell Stadium.

The Lions showed a huge amount of intestinal fortitude under adverse conditions, almost two hours away from home, during a rare Thursday-night varsity contest.

Fruster said it best when he said, “This win was on the kids.”

“I thought they fought well the whole night,” he said. “My hat is off to Ninety Six. Their record is not indicative of their play. Coach (Mike) Doolittle has a good team down here.”

From the opening whistle, it looked as if Daniel would be making quick work of the Wildcats, jumping out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead. As it turned out, an easy victory just wasn’t in the cards, as Ninety Six stormed back in the second quarter to take a 20-14 lead into the half.

“We obviously had a lot of ups and a lot of downs,” Fruster said. “We made plenty of mistakes — it is too late in the year to be doing that.”

11-30 Page 1B.inddThe Lions were as tenacious as their head coach and battled back to right the ship and get the win.

Next up was old foe Belton-Honea Path, and for the Lions, the contest could best be summed up with one word: “disappointed.”

Rocky Nimmons/Courier
Brandon Peppers is one of a number of seniors Daniel coach Jeff Fruster will have to replace next year.

Not many thought the Lions could hang with the hard-hitting Bears, but hang they did in a 14-0 loss. Daniel put together a great effort on defense and kept the game close all night. But with an offense that just could not sustain a drive all evening, the Lions were shut out.

“I am proud of how the kids fought, I really am,” Fruster said after the game. “If you talk about taking a tough team to the wire, we did that tonight.”

Fruster said he was not going to be down about the loss.

“I liked the performance,” he said. “There was enough there to give us a chance, and that is all we are ever going to need.”

It was then back to region play as Greenville came calling the very next week.

“Muchow-Mania” ran wild at Singleton Field, as Daniel senior kicker Nick Muchow sent a 36-yard field goal through the uprights in the game’s waning seconds to ice a huge 20-19 region victory over the Red Raiders on senior night.

The Daniel fans were more raucous than they have been all season as the Lions posted their first region win of the year and moved one step closer to making the playoffs in their final home contest of the season.

As a team, the Lions played perhaps their most complete game of the season, with the offense moving the ball when it had to, the defense making stops and special teams delivering at crucial times.

The game was a back-and-forth affair late, with both teams having a shot at victory. When the smoke cleared and the dust settled, the Lions survived against a strong Greenville squad.

Follow a forced open week as a result of Hurricane Matthew wreaking havoc in the Lowcountry, the Lions got it done in crunch time against Pickens in their regular-season finale.

Fruster and his staff and players knew they had their backs to a wall. The Lions had to hit the road to play a cross-county and region rival in an electric environment with the season on the line.

A win meant a third-place finish in the Region I-4A standing and a trip to the playoffs to extend the season. A loss could have kicked them entirely out and ended the season.

The Blue Flame were coming off a big 33-0 shutout win over Travelers Rest. The Lions dominated the first half and held off the Flame in the second to come away with a 38-21 victory.

“The kids had a great two weeks of preparation. I can tell by the score that Pickens did as well,” Fruster said following the win. “It’s like I have said all along, I think these kids have a lot of fight and a lot of hunger in them. I can guarantee you that our kids are not ready for it to be over. As long as that is our mindset we will do OK.”

With a third-place region finish, the Lions got a playoff nod and hit the road to York. Daniel hung tough, even taking a 10-7 lead into the halftime intermission, only to see the wheels fall off in the final quarter. The Lions were outscored 28-0 in the fourth quarter, with three of the touchdowns coming via the big play.

“I think the kids came out and played primarily hard for most of the game,” Fruster said. “We let some big plays go against us. I think we got psyched out a bit by the things that were happening at the end of the game.”

The Lions did manage three interceptions, all by junior defensive back Michael Becker, but only one led to points. York, however, dominated the stats, posting 424 yards to the Lions’ 138.

Fruster added that he had learned during his first season as a head coach that you can’t take anything for granted.

“I am very proud of these kids and what they were able to accomplish this year, having a winning season for the first time since 2014,” he said. “I have found to take comfort in the little things and to continue to build on.”

The loss marked the last game for 14 seniors, who will never wear the Lions’ golden helmet again.

“We had a lot of things that happened to us this year, breaks that went against us, and they continued to persevere and fight through. I’m proud of this senior class and what they were able to accomplish this season,” Fruster said.