Woodruff’s Darnell Carries on Famous Cousin’s Legacy of Athletic Success
By Garrett Mitchell, Contributing Writer
As the clock neared midnight on Jan. 9, 2017, young Matthew Darnell sat glued to the television along with his sister and parents and watched as the Clemson Tigers football team capped its Cinderella season on a dramatic, final second catch to win the College Football Playoff National Championship, the Tigers’ first title since 1981.
Darnell, however, was far more focused on the recipient of that final, fateful winning pass from quarterback Deshaun Watson than perhaps even the most diehard Tiger fan.
On the receiving end of that championship catch was Darnell’s cousin and Clemson legend Hunter Renfrow. Darnell, like Renfrow, has had to face adversity his entire athletic career. Choosing basketball over football, but with a similar trajectory, Darnell has overcome every obstacle in his way to becoming the mainstay of a Wolverine team that is seeking its first region championship on the hardwood in 39 years.
It just runs in the family.
“Our whole family was all huddled together,” recalled Darnell. “We were all so excited. We talked to (Hunter) afterwards and it was all just exciting, the way he presented himself and gave all glory to God. It showed people that you can go and make big things happen and do it the right way. That really encouraged me and it was pretty amazing to watch.”
In Renfrow, Darnell not only a family member, but a role model, to emulate. If even on the basketball court, Darnell knew he could copy the blueprint of his cousin, a former undersized walk-on that few gave a chance at stardom.
The lesson: success is earned, not given.
“If you ever look at any football field that Hunter is on, he’s going to be the smallest guy out there,” said Darnell. “Just thinking about myself, I’m a post player and most (post players) aren’t 6’2” like I am so I just developed that mentality of, if I want a rebound, I’m just going to go get it. Nobody is going to give it to me. I’m not going to be able to out-jump or out-run people.”
Darnell, in his own words, is also undersized for his position. Playing in the paint against players much taller than himself, Darnell is filling a role for the Wolverines out of necessity for a physically small team that has routinely slain larger giants throughout a breakthrough season.
A reserve for much of his first three varsity seasons, and groomed to be an outside sharpshooter, Darnell embraced a move to the middle because he is the tallest player on the Woodruff roster. In that move he has found a new purpose and elevated his game to an entirely different level.
Averaging over nine points and nine rebounds per contest this season, Darnell turned in undoubtedly the two best games of his career during the first time through the region schedule. He scored a career-high 20-points in a game against 3A number four ranked Union County and then a monster night on a Friday at Woodruff, as Darnell poured in 17 points, 18 rebounds, and dished out five assists against the Clinton Red Devils to catapult Woodruff to a 5-0 start in Region III-3A.
“For my first three years I was behind several other players in the rotation and I would come in mostly as a shooter and try to bring energy off the bench,” said Darnell. “This year I’m the biggest guy on the team so I knew I wouldn’t be able to play a shooting guard position. I knew I would have to play inside. I’ve really just taken control of my game. I told myself if I was going to play the five (position) than I was going to act and play like a five.”
Woodruff head coach Bryan McConnell has watched Darnell grow and mature as a player over the past five years and is not at all surprised at the selflessness, sacrifice, and hard work from one of his senior captains.
“He’s just a basketball player and that’s what he’s become,” said McConnell. “In four years, he has assumed different roles and this year he has worked on all aspects of his game and that’s what has really helped our team.”
McConnell added, “In fall ball we told him that we were going to try him inside and see how it goes. He really bought into it and so he got reps there.”
Darnell now hopes to lead his Wolverine teammates back to the top, a long sought-after region championship, and a deep play-off run. It is, after all, something that his family is used to. For Darnell, and the rest of his senior teammates, it would be a fitting end to a career that has seen them fight from the bottom to earn the respect of opponents and coaches alike.
“This season has been completely different that the last couple of years,” he said. “For us six seniors, we have played together since middle school and it’s amazing the kind of family we have made together. We struggled the last few years but this year we came in and we were ready. We said let’s do something special.”
Added Coach McConnell, “That’s what makes this team special. By these guys still being here after all they have experienced shows their no-quit mentality. All of these seniors, when they come in each day, they are like ok coach, it’s time to go to work. They bring that to the court every day.”
Now Darnell, just like his cousin Hunter, hopes to bring a long-awaited championship home for his team. Perhaps it is just coincidence that when Hunter Renfrow cradled that pass from Watson on a clear Tampa January night three years ago that it gave Clemson its first championship since 1981. That also happens to be the last year a boys’ basketball team at Woodruff captured the conference crown.
For two cousins chasing destiny, who says lightning cannot strike twice?