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The Kings of 8-Man

Holly Hill rolls to unbeaten, back-to-back state titles

Holly Hill Academy junior Tyler Wright sheds a tackle on his way to being named the South Carolina Eight-Man Player of the Year for the two-time state champion Raiders.

By Stefan Cooper
Editor
Blount Press Row

Carole Prevett gave the world three beautiful daughters. One of them, Karen, married a Georgia fan.

Sometimes those things work out.

This past season, it worked out all the way to a second consecutive state championship in South Carolina eight-man football as Holly Hill Academy shocked them all, the Raiders rolling up back-to-back 13-0 seasons in a dominating run few saw coming.

This from a small, private school that ranked at the bottom of the state’s football-playing schools — public or private — before Michael Nelson, Prevett’s grandson, took the helm as head coach two years ago.

Karen Prevett, a 1978 Heritage graduate, met Gary Nelson when the pair were students at East Tennessee State University. By the time Michael came along, Gary was a high school athletic trainer.

“I basically grew up on a football field, a softball field, a basketball court,” Michael said.

Little did he know.

Holly Hill coach Michael Nelson, the South Carolina Eight-Man Coach of the Year, and wife, Carlie.

The Raiders were still playing the 11-man game when Michael first arrived a decade ago. His stay, at least initially, was only to last a year.

“Then I’d go back and take the MCAT” to get into medical school, he said. “They offered me the AD job. I took a leap of faith.”

It wasn’t long before Holly Hill would add girls and boys basketball coach and baseball coach to Michael’s duties, along with a few others.

“I teach some science as well,” he said.

Were it not for his wife, Carlie, he’s not sure he would have survived those early years, Michael said.

“It’s just a big family,” he said. “I’m just a small piece of the puzzle.”

Schools with a high school male enrollment of 48 or less are eligible for the eight-man game in South Carolina, and, four years ago, Holly Hill made the switch.

There was a lot to learn. Conditioning in the eight-man game is a great deal more extensive than its 11-man cousin. The field dimensions were a little different, too, still 100 yards long, but narrower to compensate for fewer players.

Our main man, linebacker/running back Marion Breland makes the stop.

“Defense is really tough,” Michael said. “If you make one guy miss, you’re taking it to the house. If you have a bunch of speed and no line, you’re not going to be successful, either. People stack the box.”

Future Raider stars like South Carolina 8-man player of the year Tyler Wright, twins Marion and Perrin Breland, quarterback Jacob Rogers, Lucas Carroway, Davin Walling, Harley Watkins, all took their licks early.

“It was tough,” Wright said.

A year ago, things began to change. Dramatically.

“They were tired of taking their beatings,” Michael said. “It was just a bunch of guys who wanted to get better.”

Nelson is a stickler for fitness. Raiders practices typically consist of 15 minutes of stretching, some group work, “Then we run the rest of the time,” he said. “We try to make it as uptempo as possible.”

“We stay in shape,” said Wright, a junior. “We’re big on conditioning.”

Last season’s championship run surprised many, but few thought the Raiders could repeat in 2021.

Raiders quarterback Jacob Rogers stiff-arms a would-be tackler.

“Having the experience … you know what’s coming,” Wright said.

It’ll be tougher next season. Rogers, the team’s tall, strong-armed quarterback, the Breland twins, Watkins, Carroway and offensive lineman Trenton Crisp were all seniors. Losses to graduation go deeper in eight-man. As you’ll see in the video, Marion and Perrin are something special.

Never say never, though. Remember, all this started because a Georgia fan and a girl from Heritage who was “All Vol” found a way to make it work.

So, just how does that go when the Vols and Bulldogs hunker down between the hedges or up at Neyland?

“My mom and I are big Tennessee fans,” Michael said, “so we’ve got numbers.”

You go, Karen!

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