Friday night lights: High school football in the Upstate

High School football season is once again upon us, and in the Upstate that means continuing the long history of cultivating stellar players, watching memorable football games, and deciding bitter rivalries. 

The Upstate routinely produces powerhouse teams, and this season is shaping up to be no different than previous years. According to recent MaxPreps.com rankings, five Upstate high schools rank in South Carolina's top 25, including Byrnes (#2), Gaffney (#3), Greenwood (#5), Spartanburg (#17), and Woodruff (#24).

Last year, six Upstate teams - Byrnes, Gaffney, Greenwood, Woodruff, Abbeville, and Christ Church - battled for state titles. In Class 4A, Byrnes defeated Gaffney 31-24 for the Division 1 title while Greenwood fell in Division 2 to Goose Creek 37-21; in Class 2A, Woodruff fell to Timberland, 20-3; and in Class 1A, Abbeville blanked Hemingway, 20-0, and Christ Church topped Lake View, 35-14. Since 1968, Upstate schools have won a total of 80 state football championships.

Nationally, Yahoo! Sports has Byrnes ranked 7th, with Gaffney breaking into the top 100, ranked at 82nd. Byrnes - which typically faces at least one commanding, out-of-state team each year - is set to open its season on a challenging note, squaring off against #19 Oscar Smith High in an ESPN game on August 25 in Chesapeake, VA.

As for rivalries, there are too many across the region to name. But one of the oldest and fiercest match-ups in all of South Carolina takes place between Easley and Pickens High Schools, as they do battle in what is now called the Sam Wyche Food Fight Bowl. In a unique twist, the schools compete for not one, but two trophies. The Ultimate Food Fight Trophy goes to the school who raises the most money for Pickens County Meals on Wheels, and the Food Fight Bowl Trophy goes to the team that wins the football game. Since the fund-raising part of the rivalry began four years ago, students have raised a combined total of $94,000 -  the equivalent of 18,800 meals for the county's home-bound seniors. This year, Easley will be defending their 2011 win, where they ended a three-year winning streak by Pickens.

And, in the Upstate, it's also about where some of the games are played. Five high schools - Dorman, Gaffney, Greenville, Byrnes, and Woodruff - recently made it into the (Charleston) Post & Courier's top 10 list of South Carolina high school stadiums. Dorman High's Cavalier Stadium boasts a two-story, state-of-the-art press box and sells personal seating licenses, something common at NFL stadiums but rarely seen at the high school level. Gaffney High's "Reservation" features a large-screen Jumbotron and a tunnel for players to enter, both of which you would expect to see at college stadiums. Greenville High's Sirine Stadium, infused in a long and rich history of tradition in the Greenville Community, was once the battleground of the Furman Paladins. Byrnes High's Nixon Field and Woodruff High's Varner Stadium were home to some of the state's top players, including standout running back Marcus Lattimore and quarterback Tony Rice, respectively.

Currently, two of the top players in the state hail from the Upstate. In preseason rankings, Pendleton High School boasts this season's number one player, Michael Hill. Hill, a defensive tackle who is also ranked 89th nationally, was recently added to the roster of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, the nation's longest-running, active all-star game. Not far down in the statewide rankings, safety Justin Bridges-Thompson, from Spartanburg, comes in at number six; and linebacker Ben Boulware, from Anderson, takes the number ten spot.

Historically, the Upstate has produced some of the game's greats. Ben Coates, a five-time Pro Bowler drafted by the New England Patriots, went to Greenwood High School. Jim Youngblood, who went to Jonesville High School in Union County, attended Tennessee Tech from 1969-72 and set a school record with 476 tackles. He went on to play for the Los Angeles Rams and the Washington Redskins. George Webster, a graduate of Westside High School in Anderson, was a first round draft pick by the Houston Oilers in 1967. Seneca High School's Jimmy Orr, a two-time pro bowler, played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Colts.  As with so many aspects of Upstate high school football, the list could go on and on.

To help fans follow all of this season's action, OurUpstateSC.info has launched a high school football information hub that includes links to schedules for every team in the Upstate as well as links to various resources to keep you up-to-date on results and standings. Check it out here  

Resources:

NFL Players Born in South Carolina

South Carolina Football

James Richardson is a freelance writer and the publisher of the Travelers Rest Tribune. When he's not writing, James enjoys spending time outdoors with his wife and two children at any one of many places across the Upstate.