JOHNSTON — Entering Friday's season-opening game, the Strom Thurmond High School football team faced more questions than it has in several years. The questions could be asked primarily because of the loss of so many senior contributors from last season's squad.
But as they have so many times under head coach Lee Sawyer, the Rebels had the right answers in a 31-15 win over Silver Bluff.
“We made a ton of opening-night mistakes. Our inexperience showed,” Sawyer said following the win in Strom Thurmond's newly renovated football stadium that hosted a massive crowd. “But our offense overcame a lot of mistakes. They overcame a lot, and I'm proud of that.”
While the Rebels had to overcome the loss of 15 starters on both sides of the ball, they were steadied by the return of All-Aiken Standard quarterback Jauveer Hammond. The senior star accounted for 211 yards of total offense – running 15 times for 116 yards and two touchdowns while completing 7 of 8 passes for 95 yards. Only a dropped pass prevented him from a perfect completion percentage.
Hammond led the Rebels on methodical scoring drives and was calm in the face of pressure. He was sacked three times on his first possession but still moved the Rebels 82 yards on 18 plays with a drive that culminated on Cole Fell's 27-yard field goal.
“He's so talented and cool under pressure,” Sawyer said of his quarterback and praising the overall effort of his offense that scored five times and gained 422 yards. “We never had to punt and even hit a field goal with a new kicker.”
After the marathon drive and two long Silver Bluff possessions that didn't result in points, the Rebels took control of the game. Hammond ran for two touchdowns in the second quarter, finishing drives that covered 77 and 91 yards. While Hammond finished off the possessions, he distributed the ball evenly among his teammates. He hit four different receivers and handed off to four ball carriers.
“I'm very proud of the offensive line,” Hammond said. “Kendall Hill (four receptions for 69 yards) stepped up good. The guys faced adversity well in the opening game. I'm proud of the team.”
Chad Gilchrist and Delonte Bates were major contributors for Strom Thurmond. They combined for 19 carries for 191 yards.
“The backs did a great job,” Sawyer said. “We've got depth.”
Longtime Silver Bluff coach Al Lown was impressed by Strom Thurmond, which knocked off his squad for the third year in a row and eighth time in 10 seasons. In spite of a solid gameplan and great effort by his players, they couldn't stop the Rebels when needed.
“We can't do it. I don't know who's going to be able to do it,” said Lown, who has a small roster and lost versatile Jalen Douse to injury but still competed. “We learned a lot about our guys. We hung in there with them, big time. I was really proud of our kids' effort. Strom Thurmond's got a great football team, and they're going to win a lot of games. We said coming into the game that all we can do is worry about ourselves. We found out a lot about ourselves tonight.”
The Bulldogs were undone by a pair of mistakes deep in Rebel territory in the first half. Receiver McKenzie Wilson was whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, turning a first-down conversion at Strom Thurmond's 24-yard line into third-and-17 back at the 43. That killed Silver Bluff's first possession, and a turnover ruined a drive on the third possession. RJ Stallings, who was an ironman and scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter, fumbled inside the Rebels' 10, preventing his squad from climbing out of a hole.
“It hurt,” Lown said of the mistakes. “But they're a better football team than us. I think we did very good to stay where we're at, so I'm pleased.”
Sawyer was pleased his team was able to capitalize on the Bulldog miscues after getting pushed down the field.
“It was big. They were able to keep playing and make something happen. They weren't ducking their heads,” Sawyer said.
In spite of the loss, Silver Bluff can move forward proud of their performance. The Bulldogs moved the ball well and ran for 216 yards – 94 from Shaquez Wright. They'll face another road test, playing at Aiken High next Friday in Brian Neal's debut as Hornets' head coach.
“We've got to keep our heads up. There's nowhere we can go but up,” said Jaylen Lawrence, who completed 5 of 8 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown in his first game as quarterback. “Hopefully we're going to take steps forward and try to win a state championship. That's the main goal.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.
SB 0 0 7 8 – 15
ST 3 14 7 7 – 31
ST–Cole Fell 27-yard Field Goal 0:37.
ST–Jauveer Hammond 1 run (Fell kick) 6:31.
ST–Hammond 9 run (Fell kick) 3:11.
ST–Chad Gilchrist 11 run (Fell kick) 6:45.
SB–Jaylen Lawrence 23 pass to McKenzie Wilson (Nicholas Casares kick) 1:32.
ST–Delonte Bates 1 run (Fell kick) 8:26.
SB–RJ Stallings 15 run (Lawrence 2-point pass to Stallings) 1:00.