Thundering win for Jackets
To knock off North Augusta, the Aiken High football team needed to play its best game of the season.
That didn’t happen. The Hornets hung close early but were undone by mistakes, injuries and – of course – the general excellence of the Yellow Jackets. North Augusta piled on the points in the second and third quarters for a 55-13 victory.
“It was a great win,” said North Augusta head coach Dan Pippin, who hit a milestone with the victory that sets up a significant game next week. “That’s our 60th win in six years. It puts us in line to play home (Friday) for a share of the region championship.”
North Augusta put itself in position to win a share of the Region 5-AAAA title with a dominating defensive performance. It had the Hornets off balance all night.
“The offense was OK early. We missed some passes but North Augusta is a good football team,” first-year Aiken head coach Brian Neal said. “We never really moved the ball.”
Aiken trailed by 14 points late in the first quarter and looked to be on the verge of being blown out on its own home field on Senior Night at Hagood Stadium. But senior ball carrier Nakeem Spann got the Hornets (1-9, 0-4) on the board with a 60-yard touchdown run.
That play, followed by back-to-back defensive stops seemed to give the home team momentum.
“That was Aiken’s doing,” Pippin said. “They had a good plan and are on the right road. They’re doing the right things.”
But the Hornets were pinned inside their own 20-yard line after the defensive stands and couldn’t gain much yardage. This tilted the battle for field position squarely in favor of North Augusta (9-1, 3-1), which got the ball on Aiken’s 14-yard line when Brandon Thomas recovered a botched snap that never was handled by either quarterback Caleb Heath or Spann. It was only a matter of time before the potent Yellow Jackets broke through and regained momentum.
That’s exactly what happened when Ronald Williams, a senior whose primary responsibility is at linebacker but has had more carries at tailback in recent games, punched in a 3-yard touchdown run.
Aiken was pinned deep again following the kickoff, and looked to go three-and-out when it was going to punt from its own 13. But Jacob Norton never had a chance to punt the ball on fourth-and-17, as Kyle Saverance came untouched off the left side and blocked the ball into the ground. Saverance was able to regain his footing and fell on the ball, smothering it in the end zone for a touchdown.
“We never got anything going, they blocked the punt,” Neal said. “The field position shifted to their side and things snowballed on us.”
On a rainy night where both teams had to endure slick balls and challenging conditions, North Augusta showed a glimpse of its quick-strike offense in the closing moments of the second quarter. It got the ball back on its 42 with less than two minutes in the half.
Quarterback Trib Reece barely needed a minute. He drove the Yellow Jackets 58 yards in four plays, completing all three of his passes – including a 5-yard score to Keyon West.
The onslaught continued in the third quarter, as Reece and Willie McCloud connected on a 19-yard touchdown and Dashawn Barnes charged up the middle of the field for a 24-yard touchdown run. McCloud capped the scoring, and an all-around terrific performance with a 9-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, as the game had gone to a running clock by that point.
In addition to his one catch for a touchdown, McCloud had 11 carries for 108 yards. But his biggest contributions came as kick returner, as he set the Yellow Jackets up for several scores – including their first two for a 14-point lead.
On the game’s opening kickoff, McCloud returned the ball 73 yards to Aiken’s 17, setting up Reece’s quarterback sneak for a score. Later in the quarter, McCloud returned a short punt 22 yards to the Aiken 27, setting up a touchdown pass from Reece to West. For the game, McCloud returned three punts for 45 yards and three kickoffs for 132 more.
“Willie impresses me,” Pippin said of McCloud’s dedication to improve by studying game film. “When he goes forward, he does a great job. Willie can make you miss.”
The Hornets got a another touchdown from Spann, who ran untouched in to the end zone from 11 yards out following Dramel Coleman’s 81-yard kickoff return on the previous play. But other than Spann’s two runs – which accounted for most of his 12-carry, 102-yard performance – and Coleman’s kickoff, North Augusta’s defense dominated.
“The defense played very well,” Pippin said. “The defense has played pretty well all year.”
Overall, Aiken was limited to a mere 95 yards of offense on the night. Coleman, who was just recently named to the North-South All-Star Football Game and came into the game as the Hornets’ leading rusher, was held to 14 yards on seven carries. His stat line and evening looked good compared to Caleb Heath’s. The senior quarterback was 0-for-8 passing the ball and lost 4 yards on three carries. The last run reinjured a shoulder ailment, knocking him out of the game – possibly longer – in the third quarter. His replacement didn’t fare any better, as Jaquan Adams went 0-for-4 and lost 4 yards on two rushes.
Heath’s injury was one of several key ones suffered by the Hornets. Norton was injured when a snap deflected off one of his up-men and he fell awkwardly trying to recover it, losing a battle with Saverance. Neal said it was likely either a high-ankle sprain or a fracture, the same diagnosis he gave to offensive lineman Jermaine Garriett.
Now the Hornets’ focus shifts to their likely season finale at South Aiken. Despite a poor record, Aiken could salvage some pride with a win over its crosstown rival.
“It’s been an up-and-down year. It seems like we take a few good steps forward then take on back,” Neal said. “But South Aiken is coming up, hopefully we’ll be motivated for a good week.”
The Yellow Jackets have plenty of motivation as they head into their regular-season finale, a home showdown against Dutch Fork for at least a share of the region title. With North Augusta’s victory paired with Dutch Fork’s triumph over Lexington, the Yellow Jackets could force a tie for first with a victory next week.
“It’s a great opportunity for everybody, the kids and the community,” said Pippin, who’s looking for another big crowd next week. “It’s what we want, to play for a region championship at our place versus a great opponent.”
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.