FOUNTAIN INN – The feel-good story of the opening week of high school football in the Upstate last Friday was provided by one of the youngest teams in the state. Fountain Inn, in its second season of varsity football and with no seniors on the roster, recorded the first win in school history with a 28-0 victory at West-Oak.
Friday’s win came 364 days after the Fury came oh so close to a victory in their debut. In the 2022 season opener, Fountain Inn tied the game on a field goal early in the fourth quarter before West-Oak made a field goal with 33 seconds left to give the Warriors a 9-6 win.
Outside of two-score losses to Carolina and Palmetto, the Fury did not really contend for another win the rest of the way as they finished 0-10. That made Friday’s triumph all the sweeter.
“We knew from day one that we were going to have to play varsity with only freshmen and sophomores last year. … There’s a huge gap physically and in maturity, so we knew last year was going to be a struggle and it was,” Fountain Inn coach Brett Nichols said after practice Wednesday. “I can’t say enough about these kids. They’ve done everything I’ve asked them to do and they keep coming back. That’s the greatest compliment I can give, especially to a 14- and 15-year-old. … They get coached hard and they come back. They keep fighting.
“There’s nothing that makes me happier than seeing them experience some success on the field, knowing what they’ve been through.”
While the rising juniors and sophomores did not experience the joy of victory last season, it was an entirely opposite experience for much of this year’s incoming freshmen. Eighth-graders from Bryson Middle and Rudolph Gordon Middle helped Fountain Inn’s D-team go undefeated in 2022.
One of those is freshman quarterback Sam Holliday (pictured), who picked up where he left off last season on Friday. He threw two touchdown passes, ran for two more touchdowns and also ran in a pair of two-point conversions.
“I was obviously pretty nervous with it being my first varsity start. … We had a long first drive, which helped me get settled. It was like 14 or 15 plays and we scored,” Holliday said. “After that drive, all my nerves were gone. I just knew I had to keep playing and keep having fun.”
Holliday completed 13-of-24 passes for 170 yards, and also led the Fury in rushing with 72 yards on 14 carries. Peyton Atwood had a team-high 7.5 tackles, while Ben Carlson had seven tackles and an interception to lead the Fountain Inn’s shutout effort. Xeviel Gonzalez had 6.5 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss, a quarterback hurry and a pass breakup also for the Fury.
On a team with no seniors, “senior leadership” has to grow from other places. Quarterback is naturally a leadership position and Nichols was thrilled with Holliday’s debut.
“Sam is a very talented young player. As a freshman, being able to start at quarterback at any school on any level says a lot about him,” Nichols said. “It says a lot about his maturity, but he’s also a very physically gifted football player.
“We’ve got some kids that are walking these halls for the very first time as freshmen that are going to be leaders for us. Not just because they’re great players, but they’re just ready to go to work. … It’s been fun to see guys step into that role because on this team, it certainly doesn’t matter what age you are.”
A winless first season should not be unexpected for a new school, much less one that dove smack dab into the middle of the high school classification pool. You might think a quaint, classic small town like Fountain Inn would begin in Class A, but that wasn’t the case. With the Simpsonville and surrounding area growing by the minute, Fountain Inn’s enrollment numbers put the Fury in Class 3A.
They also play in one of the toughest football regions in 3A. Region II’s lineup includes 2022 state runner-up Powdersville, 2019 state champion Wren and 2004 state champ Belton-Honea Path, a program that has had just two losing seasons over the past 27 years.
While Nichols understands those bigger mountains are still to climb, he’s focused on any challenges only making his team stronger.
“Going back to coaching these guys in middle school (after he was hired as Fountain Inn’s coach in 2000), I’ve preached to them that there’s going to be a long stretch of time where we’re going to be at a disadvantage, from age and obviously the physical aspect of it,” Nichols said. “But from day one, we’re not going to use that as an excuse or a crutch. We’re just not going to.
“As cliche as it is, and I hate sounding cliche, it is a process. … We’ve got a long way to go, but we’re moving in the right direction.”