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Bluffton High School struck out Friday night in the Lower State championship football game, but there's still plenty of room for joy in pluff-mudville.
Few could have expected the Bobcats to beat the Myrtle Beach Seahawks. The bigger, faster, stronger visitors dropped a rude 47-0 beating on the home team, soaring into the state title game on the wings of one of the nation's best passers to suit up for any high school.
None of that stopped more than 4,000 people from paying to see it. It didn't stop them from standing in a chilly mist to cheer a team down by 41 points in the waning moments of a miracle season. And therein lies the story.
"This team has done for us what 9/11 did for the country," said the Rev. Renty Kitty, resplendent at game time in a white suit and straw hat. "They have brought us together as a community."
Thirty-four seasons ago, Kitty tasted another high-stakes defeat. It was in the dirt and grass a couple of miles away. He was an all-state nose guard and fullback when the old H.E. McCracken High School in Bluffton lost a state title game at home.
His eyes swept across a sea of people Friday night and he said: "This reminds me of the way it was when all the adults came to our games to support their children -- the football players, the cheerleaders, the band, all of them."
On this Friday night of great hope, the fans rang cow bells, waved white "swag rags," blew horns, bought chances for prize drawings, placed orders for barbecued Boston butts, ate hotdogs, raised their hands in disgust, second-guessed the coaches and players down below, and all started the fourth quarter singing a verse of the beach music classic, "Heeey Baby."
Some drove over from Beaufort to see it. Retired English teacher George Westerfield came from Hilton Head Island to cheer the children, or even grandchildren, of his former students. He started teaching at the first rendition of Bluffton High School in 1969. That was the all-white school, which preceded the integrated McCracken High, which preceded the sad day in Bluffton when all the kids were sent to the new Hilton Head Island High when it opened in 1983. In their eyes, a 21-year meander in the desert would follow until the shiny new Bluffton High School opened to serve a town that seemed to have gulped steroids and overnight sprawled into a sea of unconnected neighborhoods.
This year's Bobcats seem to have driven a stake into the heart of the doubts: That Bluffton will never again be a community, or even, Bluffton doesn't matter.
On the magic ride to 12 wins, none could be sweeter than the two beatdowns Bluffton put on Hilton Head. It had never happened before. A demon had been exorcised. Bluffton was free to be Bluffton, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.
Alex Ulmer has lived all 66 of his years in Bluffton. He was a running back and defensive lineman on the first-ever Bluffton High football team in the late 1950s.
"From the get-go, there was a lot of support in the community," he said. "Bluffton just liked football -- all the games, really."
Later, Ulmer would labor in the concession stands for 25 years. He had a deep-fryer for french fries hooked to his pickup.
"When they took away our school, they took away the identity of Bluffton," Ulmer said. "What these Bobcats have done is phenomenal. I'm so glad to see Bluffton shine. It puts Bluffton back on the map, if you know what I mean."
The Myrtle Beach score will soon enough be forgotten. What should be remembered is that this 12-2 Bobcats team gave a sense of pride to Bluffton High, and the community it serves.
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