Lions punch ticket to State title game

By Rocky Nimmons


CENTRAL — The Daniel Lions are Columbia-bound and only one game away from a perfect season and their first AAA State championship since 1998.

The undefeated Lions earned their way to a showdown with the Myrtle Beach Seahawks this Saturday with a heart-pounding 29-27 come-from-behind victory over the Chapman Panthers last Friday night at Singleton Field in the Upper State title game.

The Lions held the lead for most of the contest, but with 1:06 to play Chapman rallied following a Daniel failed fake punt attempt to take its first lead at 27-26 after mounting a 10-play drive that ended with a Panther touchdown. The Panthers went for a two-point conversion, but the Lions’ defense held, giving just enough daylight for Daniel coach Randy Robinson and his troops to put together a rally of their own to win the contest on a 24-yard Christian Groomes field goal with two seconds to play. The win gave Daniel right to defend the Upstate at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia this Saturday at 3 p.m.

For Robinson and the Lions, the win nullified years of frustration, as it was the fourth Upper State title game at Daniel in six years, with no trips to Columbia to show for the effort prior to this season.

“I can’t put into words how happy I am,” an ecstatic Robinson said after the game. “I got this job eight years ago and I said we had to set the bar back at the top. We have caught criticism, but guess what? We are going to Columbia next Saturday. We set the bar at the top and we finally got there.

“These coaches do a fine job for me. They coached great, and we have great players. Our kids found a way. I am so proud of my team.”

Daniel would have never had a shot at the kick if not for a clutch drive by its offense and great play-calling by the coaching staff. After Chapman took the lead, the Lions had only about a minute left and found themselves 71 yards away from the Panther end zone.

The drive didn’t start well when Lion running back Jae’ lon Oglesby was hit on first down for a three-yard loss as seconds ticked by. But junior quarterback Andy McCall seemed to have nerves of steel and went to the air, finding Oglesby for 14 yards, giving his team a first down at the Daniel 40, setting up the biggest play of the Lions’ season.

Robinson sent in the play, and McCall took the snap, dropped back with pressure coming hard and found big wide receiver Chuck Colberg open over the middle, firing a strike that Colberg grabbed at the Chapman 23.

Oglesby got the next call to run down the clock and pushed the ball downfield for 13 yards. Now with less than 20 seconds to play, Robinson knew it was all on the line and called for one more handoff to his “bread and butter” back, and Oglesby plowed ahead for five more yards to the Panther 5-yard line.

By this time the clock was under 10 seconds to play and Singleton Field was deafening, as perhaps the largest crowd of Daniel fans at a game this year were screaming at the top of their lungs.

Hurrying to get the play off, Daniel was called for a dead-ball illegal substitution penalty, costing them five yards and pushing the ball back to the Chapman 10-yard line. Pandemonium was everywhere as the Lions rushed to get the kick away, and just as the ball was snapped yellow flags rained down. The call was offsides against Chapman, moving the ball half the distance to the goal line and stopping the clock with only five seconds to play.

Groomes then made his name legend, as the kicker booted the ball just inside the left upright for a 24-yard field goal and the victory.

“It was about as dramatic as it could get,” Robinson said. “You know, we rode our defense and rode our defense, and then the fake punt put us in a bad spot, but when Andy McCall stood in that pocket and made that throw to Chuck to get us in range and Jae’lon gave us all he had, it was just a great team effort. We always talk about our defense, but our offense came through for us tonight.”

The Lions now must face Myrtle Beach this week for the AAA State Championship. The Seahawks will enter the game riding a nine-game winning streak. The Seahawks lost only a single region game, finishing second to Socastee. During its playoff run, Myrtle Beach picked up a shutout win over Berkeley in the first round before knocking off a pair of No. 1 seeds in Strom Thurmond and Crestwood to advance to last week’s Lower State championship game, where it beat Marlboro County by a 20-6 final.

The Seahawks are led by quarterback Drayton Arnold, who threw for a pair of touchdowns against Marlboro County. The Seahawks also feature a stout defense and even recorded a safety last week in the Lower State title game.

Daniel’s game with Chapman started with the tough Lion defense holding the Panthers to zero yardage on Chapman’s first possession of the night.

Forcing a punt, the Lions took control and mounted a 10-play drive that was mostly on the legs of Oglesby. The Shrine Bowler, who picked up 312 yards on the night, had six carries on the first series alone. Daniel did push the ball 48 yards on the series, but stalled at the Chapman 5-yard line. A false start flag pushed the Lions back to the 10, and Groomes came on and drilled a 27-yard field goal with 7:27 to play in the first quarter to give his team a 3-0 lead.

After another Panther punt, a nice return by Daniel’s Daulton Pilgrim gave the Lions the ball at the Chapman 48-yard line. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Panthers moved the ball to the 37-yard line, and Oglesby wasted no time in stretching the Daniel lead on a touchdown run on the first snap. Groomes came on to add the extra point, but his kick missed its mark, making the score Daniel 9, Chapman 0 with 6:39 to play in the quarter.

Chapman finally got moving and put together a drive after the ensuing Lion kickoff. The Panthers move the ball 68 yards in seven plays and scored when Malik Gray hit Deebo Samuel for a 50-yard pass to cap the drive. Brian Rubalcava added the extra point with 3:02 to play to pull his team to within two at 9-7.

After the Panthers recovered a Daniel fumble at the Lion 29-yard line and picked up 15 yards on the first play of the possession, Robinson’s defense buckled, stuffing a Chapman fourth-down play to give the offense the ball back at the 5-yard line.

Robinson went back to Oglesby, and the senior was ready to make good for the turnover. The back picked up 25 yards on the first snap and 66 yards on the second, pushing the pigskin down to the Chapman 4-yard line in only two carries. Austin Barnes showed his pass-catching ability, hauling in a McCall pass, but was stopped just shy of the goal line. Robinson went back to his big bruising back, and this time Barnes hammered his way in for a touchdown. Groomes added the PAT with 10:57 to play in the half, and just like that, what seemed like disaster turned into points for the Columbia blue and gold, which led 16-7.

Chapman responded, embarking on an 80-yard drive that was capped with a 22-yard touchdown pass from Gray to Samuel with 8:06 to play in the half. Rubalcava was good on the PAT, making the score Daniel 16, Chapman 14.

Late in the quarter, Robinson again called on Groomes, and the senior delivered with a 21-yard field goal to push the lead to 19-14 entering halftime.

After the two teams traded possessions to open the third quarter, including a dynamic interception by Daniel’s Amir Trapp, the Lions had what appeared to be a game-icing three–play drive in the latter stages of the quarter.

McCall hit wide receiver Noah Preisch for nine yards on first down, then Oglesby went to work and picked up 26 yards on the next snap, pushing the pigskin down to the Chapman 19-yard line. Robinson stuck with Oglesby, and the back rumbled 19 yards for the score with 2:54 to play in the third. Groomes added the PAT, and the game looked out of reach with the Lions out front 26-14.

But it was far from over.

The Lion defense halted the Panthers on their next possession and took control of the ball at the Daniel 15. Daniel then mounted a 16-play drive that ate more than half a quarter from the clock. The series was slow and methodical, designed to slowly drain time. The Daniel offense pushed the ball down to the Chapman 20, but an incomplete pass forced Robinson to call on his kicker once more. Groomes, who has emerged as one of the best kickers in the Upstate, lined up the tee and called for the snap, but for the second time in the game he shockingly missed and the score remained Daniel 26, Chapman 14.

The miss, however, seemed to ignite the Panthers. Chapman took over at the Daniel 20-yard line and it only took two plays, the first a three-yard pass and the second an incredible 76-yard completion from backup Landon Collins to Samuel for a touchdown. Rublalcava added the extra point with six minutes to play, pulling his team to within five points of the Lions at 26-21.

It was put up or shut up time for Daniel, and the Lions took the Chapman kickoff and put the ball into play at midfield. Oglesby was tracked down for a five-yard loss on first down, but followed that loss up with a pair of runs that netted eight yards. Facing fourth and seven yards to go for a first down, Robinson went with a play he said his coaches had seen open all night — a fake punt.

The ball was snapped and Fowler caught it clean, but to his amazement no one was ready to receive a pass as he cocked his arm back. Seeing no receiver, all Fowler could do was eat the ball, giving Chapman the ball and the momentum at the Daniel 39-yard line.

“We came here to win. We didn’t come here to lose,” Robinson said. “We had to take a shot. It was there, we just didn’t execute it.”

The Panthers were on fire and ready to push the ball in for the victory. Push it they did, on a 10-play drive that covered the distance. Samuel, as he had done all night, put the Panthers on his back and rumbled in from a yard out to cap the drive and give his team the lead at 27-26. Chapman went for a two-point conversion to try to extend its lead to three points, but the attempt failed and the Lions had a chance with 1:06 left in the game.

That is when Robinson and the Lions put together their amazing comeback.

Although Groomes had a pair of missed field goals and a missed extra point on the night, when the Lions’ season was all on the line he was good to go and had ice water in his veins.

“It was a team effort,” Groomes said. “I could not have been down there to make the kick without the offense. It wasn’t just me that did it, it was the whole team. I am just thankful to have had the opportunity.

“I didn’t even know what the situation was. I just thought we had five seconds to play. I am just so glad that we were able to get this done and that we will get to back to Columbia for the State championship for the first time since 1998.”

The win and the fashion in which it happened seemed like one for the ages.

“I guess the Lord wanted to make it dramatic,” Robinson said. “You work so hard and you set goals and you want to see your kids accomplish things. This win was for all the kids, for the 2009 group that came up just short and the 2008 group and for last year’s group. This was for all of those guys.

“Christian (Groomes) got it done. I’ll tell you what, that kid has been through a lot. When it counted we executed. It is all about the heart of a team, and my kids have a lot of heart.”

Saturday’s State championship game is set for a 3 p.m. kickoff at Williams-Brice Stadium. Tickets are $10, and children 5 and under will be admitted for free. Tickets are available at Daniel High until noon on Friday.