The Philip Simmons High School football team might be more like a band of brothers as the season-opening kickoff nears. Well-coached teams always have esprit de corps, but this year might even be a stronger bond for the Iron Horses.
The players have been through it all since March, when the coronavirus pandemic forced cancellation of all sports, including spring football practices, while keeping students home for classes.
Since then, the Iron Horse players and coach Eric Bendig’s staff contemplated life without football as they conditioned and practiced, knowing things could change with another significant rise in coronavirus numbers. But finally, the Iron Horses get to play when they open the season Sept. 25 at Region 6-AA foe Burke.
“It’s been a journey, it’s been a roller-coaster,” Bendig said. “For me, personally, it’s great to see the kids have a season. They have worked hard to get to this point.”
The Iron Horses’ season took a hit because of the virus before the season even started. They were scheduled to play regional foe Ridgeland-Hardeeville on Oct. 23, but the game was canceled when Beaufort County school officials shut down fall sports. Bendig is searching for a new opponent that weekend.
The Iron Horses went 4-6 last fall in their second year of varsity football, including 3-1 in Region 6-AA. The team qualified for the playoffs, but were defeated by Whale Branch in the first round.
That gives the Iron Horses a 6-14 record in two years as a varsity team.
But the numbers that Iron Horse faithful might be more interested in are 111, 54 and 32.
There are 111 players in the program, including 54 on the varsity roster. And the depth Bendig dreamed of when he accepted the job is finally a reality as the team returns 32 lettermen.
“It’s the most we’ve ever had,” Bendig said when he crunched the numbers. “I think it’s more of a correlation with the growth of the school.”
The team has seven starters returning on each side of the ball, and some impressive talent including all-state candidates Luther Smalls, Tyler Harper and Will Ramey.
Smalls, a senior, should shine on both sides of the ball. He’s the leader in the defensive secondary while providing speed and depth at the wide receiver position.
Harper is a blast from the past by the way he plays linebacker. He was usually in double figures in tackles despite being targeted with double teams from opposing squads.
Ramey was named the team MVP last fall, and begins the season as a team leader, serving as one of the captains. He’s slotted to play wide receiver.
But the most talented player on campus just might be quarterback Tripp Williams, a 6-6 junior with a cannon for an arm and the right mental approach to lead the team.
Williams, however, was injured in the first game of the season and didn’t return until the penultimate game of the regular season. That injury caused a chain reaction to the depth chart as Bendig had to shuffle players into new positions.
“He checks off all the boxes you want in a quarterback,” Bendig said of Williams. “He’s going to be the catalyst the next two years.”
The Iron Horses play in a very competitive region with state powers Woodland and Timberland standing in the way of the Iron Horses’ ascent to the top of the league standings.
“We want to be in the mix with those guys,” Bendig said. “They have good athletes and are well-coached, both signs of good programs.”
Philip Simmons graduated its first senior class in May, and two student-athletes who graduated were running backs Solly Bess and Javier Collins-Smith.
Bendig must find replacements, and one of the leading candidates is Peyton Woolridge, who should be in contention for post-season honors as a running back. He’s very athletic and should get plenty of touches this fall.
The Iron Horses have worked hard and have the green light from Bendig.
“I’ve been high on these guys since the end of last season,” the coach said. “They know what to expect. They know what the standards are.”
PHILIP SIMMONS SCHEDULE
Region 6-AA Fall Schedule
Sept. 25 @ Burke
Oct. 2 @ Lake Marion
Oct. 9 Woodland (Home)
Oct. 16 Timberland (Home)
Oct. 30 Hanahan (Home)
Nov. 6 @ Bishop England