Ahead of Their Time, the 1980-81 Wolverine Hoops Team Introduced the State of South Carolina to the Future of Basketball
Moments That Changed Wolverine History: Part Five of a 12-Part Series Looking Back at Events Which Changed the Landscape of Woodruff Athletics
By: Garrett Mitchell, Staff Writer
These Wolverines were “Showtime” before it was cool.
Years before the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, introduced that word to the mainstream American lexicon, the 1980-81 Woodruff boys’ basketball team gave fans in northwestern South Carolina a small glimpse of the yet-to-be worldwide phenomenon.
A team that loved to run, it was sensational, fun, futuristic, and above all, lethal. Nor could Woodruff coach Chuck Epps contain it.
Epps learned, just like everyone else, to just enjoy the show.
What a show it was, and, for one special season, a transcendent team shattered records, buried misconceptions, and showed the state a whole new way to play the game.
“I would call a timeout to try and get us to run the pattern offense, just so I knew we could,” recalled Epps, now superintendent of Fort Mill Schools. “We would just break a team’s will early on in a game and then just start running up and down the floor. There was no point in stopping it, but back then, a fast break offense with no pattern was just coming into vogue at the high school level. We were on the cusp of breaking away from what had always been normal.”
Except there was nothing normal about the 1980-81 Wolverines. They were fast, they were good, and they knew it.
The team had 10 seniors among its 12-man roster, a group of young men who had played together since junior high, and who by 1980, had developed an unrivaled camaraderie.
Woodruff had it all. Height, speed, perimeter shooters, physicality, depth, and a killer instinct that brought it all together.
Donnie Pearson, at 6-feet-5 inches tall, was the leading scorer, Darrell Johnson was the left-handed point guard who could shoot it from anywhere on the floor, Reggie Mays was the best athlete and glue of the team, and Scott Simpkins, John Gilliam, and Chris Taylor were the jacks-of-all-trades that just generally made life a fast-paced misery for opponents.
“The best word I could use to describe that season is ‘magical’, said Taylor. “I think rather than having a jump ball to begin the game it would have been more appropriate to have a starter’s pistol. As soon as the game started, the race was on. The best way I can describe the way we played is controlled pandemonium. If you looked up the term ‘fast break’ in the dictionary, there would be a picture of our team.”
It was a style of play before its time, in an era before the advent of the three-point shot, and when most teams still valued conservative half-court offensive sets. The 1980-81 Wolverines were not interested in fitting into an accepted, stylistic formality. The result of their uniqueness was a staggering offensive juggernaut whose records stood for decades.
Simpkins recalled one particularly frenetic contest that happened to be officiated by well-known referee Frank Pearson. Pearson paid the Wolverines a visit to their locker room immediately following the game.
“Frank came in after one of our games and said, ‘Fellas, ya’ll have a heck of a team, but I hope I don’t ever see you again!’” recounted Simpkins. “We looked at him like, what are you talking about? He said, ‘I think I lost 25 pounds out there tonight. I can’t run up and down the court like that!.’ It was a good feeling and we had a good team.”
Woodruff played 26 games, scoring 2,177 points, an average of 88.7 points per game. The Wolverines’ final record was 24-2 and they reeled off 19 consecutive victories to start the season.
A team that was a sum of its many talented parts, it started inside with Pearson. Woodruff High School’s all-time leading scorer, Pearson averaged 20.2 points per game in 1980-81 and was a match-up nightmare for opponents.
After bludgeoning teams inside, the Wolverines would start to run. Once they started, they did not stop. It was a devastating modus operandi.
“Whenever we needed to submit our will on a team, we could do that at any time,” Pearson said. “That made the games a lot of fun because, when we hit the court, at no point in time did we ever feel we would lose a game. We were out there to submit our will over you every night.”
Working everything inside out through Pearson was one of the more predictable aspects for Woodruff, and Coach Epps made sure the Wolverines used it to full effect.
“We beat teams to death at the beginning of each game by going inside to Donnie,” Epps said. “He just couldn’t be stopped. When teams finally started covering up the passing lanes, Darrell Johnson, Scott Simpkins, Reggie Mays, and John Gilliam and all those guys, they were excellent perimeter shooters, so by the time we got near halftime, the other team just had to pick their poison.”
Epps continued, “We had so many strengths, and on top of that we played good defense, we could press teams if it ever got tight. We were doing a lot of really innovative things for that era.”
Another thing that the 1980-81 Wolverines could do was slam dunk.
Dunking a basketball was not nearly as popular in the early 1980’s, and was loathed by Coach Varner, but it did precious little to stop Woodruff from playing above the rim.
Pearson, namely, was the primary antagonist. Having dunked for the first time in a game while in the eighth grade, Pearson was a high-flier and the throngs of Woodruff fans packed like sardines into the old high school’s gym were eager to goad him into slamming it home whenever he found himself in the open court with the ball.
It was a nightly occurrence, and Pearson loved it, postgame ramifications be darned.
“Whenever I stepped foot in the gym, everyone always asked me how many I was going to dunk that night,” he said. “I wasn’t going to disappoint the fans. It was quite the phenomenon to have to deal with (Coach Varner) after the game or the next day. It was just a whole anticipation of the game for the fans, like, when is it going to happen?”
Even Coach Varner eventually had to concede and begrudgingly signed off on the Wolverines’ aerial exploits.
“We had a game one night with the subs in late because we were blowing somebody out and Wayne Wehunt was in the game and tried to dunk and missed it,” added Taylor. “After the game Coach Varner comes in and, he used a lot of colorful language, but suffice it to say, he said ‘I don’t want some (expletive) bench player coming in during a blowout and dunking when I told Donnie that he couldn’t, so from now on, I don’t care if you tear the whole thing down!’”
Any way you sliced it these Wolverines were must-see entertainment. No matter where they played, home or away, fans came out in droves to watch the show. And what a show Woodruff put on, game after game.
For a football-crazy town, for one special season, a basketball ticket was one of the hardest to come by.
“It was standing room only everywhere we played,” said Pearson. “Some people couldn’t even get in the gym. They had to turn them away. The amount of people who came to see us play, it really was like ‘Showtime’ because when you have a really good team, when you go play somebody on the road, everybody knows about you so they show up, too. It always created a spectacular environment.”
Taylor joked, “It’s a good thing fire marshals weren’t present at our home games. If you wanted a seat to see us play, you probably needed to get there for the girls’ game.”
That on-court environment on game nights was further fueled by a team that was a true collection of characters, each with their own personality. The players had as much fun with one another as they did in meting out lopsided losses to their opponents.
Taylor recounted one such event which took place during a late-season practice which personified the lighter side of a team bound by immaculate chemistry.
“One night during practice we were running a drill to set up our half-court trap,” Taylor recalled. “Coach Epps blew his whistle and stopped the drill because he thought we were not taking the drill seriously. He didn’t lose his temper very often but this time he angrily shouted out, ‘Alright, get serious! I want everybody to get in the position where you are going to be during the game tomorrow!’ At that point our two underclassmen, Wallace Mays and Lance Rowland, who were acting as our opponents for the drill, whispered something to each other. They promptly walked over to the bench and sat down. The whole team just erupted in laughter.”
Even Superman has his Kryptonite, however, and for Woodruff theirs was the Pendleton Bulldogs.
Pendleton, a talented team in their own right, was in many ways a mirror image of the Wolverines. A team that also wanted to run, and with the athletes to pull it off, they engaged Woodruff in four epic battles early in 1981.
The teams split their first two meetings, with each team winning on their home court, with the setback at Pendleton in the season’s 20th game being the first loss of the year for Woodruff. The Wolverines rallied to rout the Bulldogs in the conference tournament championship game on a neutral court, however.
The environment between the two teams that season was unmatched according to those who experienced it.
“Aside from our home court, the ‘Dog House’ at Pendleton was by far the most exciting place to play,” Taylor said. “The court was surrounded by an eight to 10-foot high wall and was so close to the sidelines that when the ball went out of bounds, there was a dotted line about two feet onto the actual court to take the inbounds throw. Their gym was always packed to overflowing and the noise was deafening.”
Simpkins added, “Playing (Pendleton) was an experience. For most of the season we were ranked number one and they were ranked number two. We enjoyed playing them and they enjoyed playing us and we knew it was going to be a good ballgame.”
That rivalry would come to a tipping point late during the 1981 playoffs. The Wolverines, after rallying from eight points down in the final minute to defeat defending state champion Butler, 93-91, met their arch-nemesis again for the fourth and final time in the upper-state championship game.
Only this time the magic sand would run out of the hourglass for Woodruff. On an uncharacteristically off night, the Bulldogs held the Wolverines to their lowest point total of the season on their way to a 79-66 win and a berth in the state championship game.
Pendleton would lose to Wade Hampton in the title game a few days later and Woodruff was left to take stock of a special season, ended just short of the ultimate prize, but that helped reshape the perception of high school basketball in general and that of a program that had long sought legitimacy next to the Woodruff High football machine.
Chuck Epps only coached the Woodruff boys’ basketball team for that one, superlative year, but the impact that he and his team left on the school, town, and state of South Carolina continued to resonate long after the final second ticked away from the Wolverines’ 1980-81 season.
“I was just honored and fortunate to be there,” Epps said. “I was just in the right place at the right time. Those kids, I think anyone could have coached them and they would have had success. It was a great moment. It was just Pendleton’s turn but I’m convinced had we gotten by them we would have won the whole thing.”
Looking back, the stats and measurables of the 1980-81 Wolverine basketball team are just as remarkable today as they were almost 40 years ago.
Pearson, Johnson, and the late Reggie Mays all averaged 15 points or more per contest and as a team the Wolverines shot 50 percent from the field over their 26 games, a percentage nearly unheard of even in today’s modern game. Woodruff eclipsed the 80-point mark in 16 of their 26 games, even without the advantage of a three-point shot for their outside shooters. Woodruff was a machine that operated with surgical efficiency.
Their 88.7 points per game average stood as a South Carolina state record for 26 years before being broken by Calhoun County in 2007. The Wolverines broke the 100-point barrier twice during that season, and their 102 points scored against Westminster remains a school record to this day.
Looking back, Pearson is proud of the legacy he and his teammates were able to leave, even if the ultimate prize slipped just beyond their grasp.
“My mindset at that time was about leaving a legacy for Woodruff basketball,” he said. “Growing up in a football town, it was that basketball never got any publicity, especially boys’ basketball, like I felt it should have. I wanted us to provide something that went beyond football and I think that’s the legacy we left. It was something that the town could be proud of.”