Thursday, October 3, 2013
By NOAH FEIT
This was the game everybody was waiting for since the schedules were made official. This is the game that fans from both Strom Thurmond and North Augusta high schools were waiting for since the football teams last played in 2009. This is the game that had all of the hype and tremendous expectations because it featured two premier programs in the Aiken area going head to head.
Friday’s game at the Jacket Nest didn’t live up to expectations – it exceeded them.
Facing its first challenge of the season, North Augusta converted enough big plays on offense and made the critical stops on defense to remain undefeated – outlasting Strom Thurmond 27-20 in front of a crowd of more than 7,000 fans.
“What a game, what a great game by both teams,” a beaming Dan Pippin said as his Yellow Jackets improved to 6-0 on the season after the defense forced the Rebels (4-1) into a turnover on downs with less than 20 seconds in the game. “This was electric; I can’t think of anything better than this. When you think of small-town Southern high school football, it’s exactly this.”
Although his team lost, Strom Thurmond coach Lee Sawyer couldn’t help but be impressed by both his team and the atmosphere.
“It was a heck of an environment, for both sides” Sawyer said, noting the large contingent of Rebel fans that overflowed from the visitor seating section. “This game is going to help both teams, help us both in late November when we’re hoping to be playing.”
Early on, it looked like North Augusta would make quick work of another opponent, having outscored its first five foes 231-36. It marched 62 yards down the field in seven plays in slightly less than three minutes on a possession that culminated in Willie McCloud’s 3-yard touchdown run.
But Strom Thurmond isn’t like any opponent North Augusta has faced this season. The Jackets might not face another team as tough and determined as the Rebels the rest of the way – including the playoffs. Strom Thurmond didn’t panic despite the quick deficit and responded with a long drive that reinforced its confidence and kept the ball away from North Augusta.
“Our plan going in was to keep the ball away from their offense. We wanted to just make a first down and start again,” Sawyer said of the strategy that worked but failed to yield any points in the first half as both of the Rebels’ possessions consumed time and worked deep into Jacket territory before stalling at the 30- and 8-yard line respectively. “The offense did an incredible job. The problem was we didn’t cash in, and that came back to hurt us.”
While North Augusta didn’t get many cracks at offense in the first half, it capitalized on its last possession. After starting on their own 20, the Jackets moved down the field with a combination of McCloud carries and short, quick passes from quarterback Trib Reece. It looked like the drive was stalling when they were faced with fourth-and-12 at the Rebels’ 31.
Pippin rolled the dice and went for it and was rewarded when Keyon West made a diving catch in the end zone after Reece connected with him on a well-covered fly route with less than a minute to play before intermission. The extra point was botched, but North Augusta had the lead and momentum.
Most teams would’ve rolled over, but Strom Thurmond isn’t most teams. It showed that by scoring twice in the first seven minutes of the third quarter to tie the score.
The first drive didn’t take long as star quarterback Jauveer Hammond only needed five plays to get the Rebels on North Augusta’s impressive new scoreboard. He showed off his arm – connecting with Kendall Hill on a 54-yard pass – and his legs, finishing the drive with a 9-yard touchdown run that included an acrobatic spin away from would-be tacklers.
Hammond was back on the field moments later after Rashad Lott recovered a Antuan Andrews fumble after the Jackets receiver was popped, one of numerous hard hits delivered in the game. Hammond again displayed the talents that made him a force last season, driving the Rebels 60 yards before connecting with Deandre Ryan on a 31-yard touchdown pass.
“It wasn’t just him, but I don’t know how many third downs he got us out of,” Sawyer said of his quarterback who passed for more yards than Reece – the area’s leading passer – while running for more yards than McCloud and Dashawn Barnes combined, two of the area’s top seven rushers. “He played his heart out.”
For the game, Hammond completed 17 of 31 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns – the second a 9-yard strike to Trevonte Watkins late in the fourth quarter to sustain the Rebels’ hopes. Hammond carried the ball 29 times for 134 yards and the other score. His performance so impressed Pippin that the coach who will work the Shrine Bowl this season said he’d stand on a table to ensure Hammond was selected to the premier all-star game.
But North Augusta stemmed the tide of momentum after the Ryan touchdown when Brandon Maddox blocked the extra point try, leaving the game tied. It didn’t stay that way long as the Jackets scored on their next possession.
Reece, who went 13-for-17 for 191 yards – led another march down the field. He appeared to have his second touchdown pass of the game when he connected again with West. But the ball was knocked loose as West was lunging for the goal line only to be recovered in the end zone by teammate Tyler Sheehan.
The Jacket defense allowed the Rebels to get deep in their territory on the next series but made another big-time stop on fourth down at their own 23.
“It was a great job by the defense to step up,” Pippin said. “Strom Thurmond’s really good on offense.”
Reece got the ball back and hit another big play, connecting with Dre Dunbar on a 34-yard touchdown pass.
Hammond and his teammates mounted another rally. They spread the ball around and scored again, but couldn’t recover an onside kick. The Rebels forced a punt, but getting the ball back on its own 6 with just 1:05 to play was too tall a task – even for Hammond. Despite having seven players run the ball and seven recording receptions, Strom Thurmond ran out of time. But in defeat, Sawyer found a silver lining.
“We learned a lot about our team. This is by far the best we’ve played, and we always try to be at our best before region play starts,” Sawyer said of his squad which will open Region 5-AAA play at home next Friday against Brookland-Cayce. “We’ve got to take the positive out of this. We got confidence, that’s hard to say after a loss.”
North Augusta will get an extra week to savor this hard-fought win in a tremendous atmosphere. The Yellow Jackets have their bye before opening Region 5-AAAA play against Lexington on Oct. 11.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard.
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