As special and entertaining Friday night’s Class 3A quarterfinal matchup between the Columbia Wildcats and West Marion Trojans was, there were a couple added layers that every football fan in the area should be proud of.
Columbia beating West Marion 18-13 with a touchdown with just five seconds to play was actually reflective of life in general, and the mutual respect the two sides showed each other in that moment was something that ought to be celebrated.
When it comes to rising to the occasion in the face of adversity, Columbia head coach Chip Bilderback said the Wildcats’ mentality goes back to losing the South State Championship to Jeff Davis County last season. Columbia was in position to tie the game in the fourth quarter, but a bad offensive interference call forced a punt, which ended up getting blocked. The Wildcats crumbled after that and ended up losing 27-7.
“(The blocked punt) really dropped our mindset. It killed the energy and enthusiasm we had,” he explained. “We talked all season long about ‘from the punt block on, that’s when our team has to be better.’ I felt like really the last month we’ve had a lot of punts blocked per se with the things we’ve had to overcome. It’s something we’ve talked about for almost a year now, and our kids have really bought in. In those tough situations, we’re going to be better and respond in the right way. Friday night was a culmination of that in the sense we had to overcome a lot of injuries the last couple of weeks, playing on the road against a rival with all the outside distractions with that and things weren’t going our way for three-and-a-half quarters. But our kids just kept on fighting.”
That fight was also in display during the first meeting between the two heavyweights Oct. 16, when the Trojans outlasted Columbia 7-6 in overtime. Bilderback said he and the Wildcats have nothing but respect for Trojans head coach Brad Duncan and West Marion, and both teams played the game the right way.
“If you watched both those football games, I don’t know how you’re not proud of Marion County football. You had eight quarters and an overtime of kids that were fighting like heck. The thing that was nice was they’d hit us then help us up and vice versa — I think that speaks volumes of what’s really important and that’s playing the game the right way,” he said. “The two times we played, their kids and our kids, both teams wanted to win, but there was a mutual respect. There’s not a hate between the two. That’s refreshing in high school football, and that’s a credit to coach Duncan.”
Duncan echoed Bilderback’s sentiment and said the attitude of the players is what makes Marion County football really special.
“If you just think back to the regular season game, we had four quarters plus an overtime of really good, hard-nosed, tough football. Then we had the same thing Friday night of just slobber-knocking, get-after-it football,” he said. “We’re rivals there’s no doubt, but to see the class and sportsmanship of the kids — the fans get into it a lot more as far as the love-hate relationship — but the respect our guys have for each other is what high school sports is about.
“That was two physical groups getting after each other. At the end of the day, we’re still going to be neighbors. It’s hard to compete against somebody that you know; it’s hard to compete against somebody that you love. For them to be able to do that and still walk away with their heads high, that says a lot about the caliber of people we have here.”
Duncan also pointed to a moment in the second quarter when Marion County Most Valuable Jartavious “Tater Rabbit” Martin went down with a minor injury. The Wildcats were as concerned for Martin’s wellbeing as the Trojans were, and there was even a Columbia player who shushed a fan in the stands for yelling while everyone was on a knee in respect of Martin. Martin turned out to be OK and returned to the game.
With everything that was on the line Friday — a trip to the South State Championship chief among the things at stake — the sportsmanship, respect and will to succeed created a great experience to witness during a tumultuous 2020.