Frederica Academy football coach Brandon Derrick and golf coach Tom Willis directed their respective teams to the pinnacle of their sports this past year.
Derrick and Willis’ work was recognized Monday when they were named the GISA’s Football and Golf Coaches of the Year at the league’s conference on Jekyll Island.
“That’s a huge honor because I think that just goes to show that everybody knows that you’re working just as hard as everybody else,” Derrick said. “For those guys to honor us for winning that, it’s a great honor to be there beside Tom because he’s won it like 14 times. He’s won 14 state championships.
“So for us, it was a huge honor for us and the school. It’s a great representative point that hard work will get you where you want to be.”
In his seventh year at Frederica Academy, Derrick and the Knights finally broke through to capture the state championship that had eluded his team in the preceding seasons.
After missing the playoffs in 2014, the Knights’ first season in the GISA’s highest classification, the program began its steady ascent, beginning with its first playoff appearance in Class 3A the following year.
Frederica proceeded to advance to the quarterfinals in 2016, and it came just seconds shy of a finals appearance in 2017, before rolling to a state title this past season and accomplishing the task Derrick set his eyes on when he first took the job.
“I think for me, when I came here, it was going to be a challenge to change the culture,” Derrick said. “I’m not a guy that’s going to be OK with just winning five games. If we win five games, I want it to be our region games.
“I don’t want to be middle of the road. I want to be known as an elite program because we do things right and we challenge ourselves everyday.”
Despite multiple injuries, Frederica Academy lost its first two games against GHSA’s Charlton County and defending GISA state champions Valwood by a combined eight points before winning 10 of its final 11 games in dominant fashion.
The Knights outscored their opponents during that span by an average margin of 32 points per game, and the games only became more lopsided in the postseason, where Frederica Academy won its three games by an average of 42 points.
Making the accomplishment more impressive is the limited staff and players Frederica Academy’s football team had to work with.
There were only about 30 players on the Knights’ roster this past season, and even fewer played significant snaps, compared to some teams that fielded teams of 70-plus players. Also, aside from Derrick and assistant coach Alex Mathis, the rest of Frederica’s six-man coaching staff consisted of community coaches.
Derrick credited the dedication of those around him for helping elevate the program to its zenith.
“I got the plaque, but I’ll be honest, our assistant coaches really should get one too,” Derrick said. “They put in a lot of hours. We spend a lot of time on the phones late at night when people are asleep, and I’m sitting at the kitchen table at 2 o’clock in the morning, and we’ve got one guy that’s, ‘Coach, I saw this. We need to look at this.’”
As the Coach of the Year award is generally reserved for the coach of the team that won the state title, 14-time champion Willis has won more than his share of the award in his career at Frederica Academy.
But this year’s award might have been the most meaningful of Willis’ career as the perennial powerhouse of a golf program entered the state tournament as a rare underdog.
Frederica Academy has regularly sent golfers off to Division I programs under Willis — 18, as a matter of fact, over his career — but that wasn’t the case this season. None of the players on the Knights’ title winning team are likely to play golf at the next level.
As a result, Frederica went into the tournament as a bit of an afterthought.
“This was kind of an upset,” Willis said. “We were in the top three teams, but I don’t think we were the favorite. We were able to play well in state, although we didn’t play our best of the year, we played pretty dang good. The two teams that were challenging us, Brookwood and Pinewood, didn’t have as good of days as they could have, and so were able to pull it out.
“It was a nail-biter.”
Frederica Academy edged out Pinewood Christian by a single stroke — one that the Knights stole on a 55-foot putt on hole 18 from the team’s low scorer Ryan McHugh.
Without scoreboards on the course, it was impossible for the teams to know exactly where they stood down the stretch, but Willis told McHugh on the 18th fairway that he felt the team wasn’t doing well and could use a boost if they were to secure the program’s 12th straight state championship.
But even after McHugh obliged, Willis could only muster a soft smile.
“Well, I still didn’t think it was good enough,” Willis said. “They still had a bunch of players out there on the course. Ryan finished about 30 minutes before the guys on the other teams finished. Although that was big, and I thought we had a chance.”
However, strong finishes by the rest of the Knights, coupled with the relative struggles of their opponents, created just enough an opening for Frederica to steal the trophy.
The exciting finish made Willis 14th title as a coach one to remember.
“It’s the first time we’ve been in that underdog position in a long time because we have had really good teams, a long run of them,” Willis said.