Silver Bluff Bulldogs look to find their footing before state title game
PETTICOAT JUNCTION — Wednesday was an early release day for Aiken County schools, and the Silver Bluff football team took advantage.
With the Class AA, Division II championship game looming on Friday, the Bulldogs (12-1) went on the road around lunch time, headed for River Bluff High School in Lexington. The first-year school that has yet to field a varsity football team has an artificial turf field similar to the one at Benedict College, the site of the state championship game. Thanks to a connection with River Bluff baseball coach and defensive coordinator Mark Bonnette – Bulldog head coach Al Lown’s son-in-law – the school was “gracious” enough to allow Silver Bluff to take over for the afternoon.
“In the past, when it was at Williams-Brice, we’d go up there and spend the day walking around the stadium because it was so big,” Lown said, referring to the University of South Carolina stadium that holds more than 80,000 people, well more than 11,000-seat Charlie W. Johnson Stadium at Benedict. “We just wanted to get rid of any kind of apprehensions they had about field turf out of their minds.”
Senior Gyasi Yeldell, who plays offensive tackle and defensive line, said that he had already experienced playing on artificial surfaces at camps over the summer. As a result, the four-year starter knew what to expect.
“It makes you feel a little bit faster than you do on grass,” Yeldell said.
In addition to adding to the players’ confidence level about playing on an unfamiliar footing, Lown said the trip had a more tangible purpose. Even the most basic play, like a low-flying kickoff, can change dramatically on artificial turf, so any chance to get some reps on it could help.
“A little bit bigger bounce if the ball hits the ground on the kick,” he said.
Other than the special trip, Lown said he’s tried to keep the schedule the same as the Bulldogs prepare for Batesburg-Leesville (11-2). Even during the regular season, Lown made it a point of not practicing late into the evening, in an effort to keep his players mentally and physically fresh.
“We basically kept our same time frame,” he said. “If we’re on the field more than an hour and a half, it’s unusual.”
Friday won’t allow the Bulldogs to stick as close to their usual agenda. The game is set for 5:30 p.m., a full two hours earlier than regular-season kickoffs.
While that will require some adjustments, Lown said the team will eat its pre-game meal the same amount of time before kickoff to allow the players to keep routines intact.
“For us, I don’t think it’ll be a big deal,” he said.
Even though this will be Yeldell’s first state championship game, he and the other seniors that have been around for four years have no shortage of experience to fall back on. After the Bulldogs lost in the second round their freshman year, they’ve advanced to the Lower State title game each of the last two years.
As a result, Yeldell – whom Lown said is “used to the big games” – knows the message that needs to be delivered to younger players.
“Just remind them what we’re playing for,” he said, pointing out the school, tradition and community surrounding the program. “We’re not playing an opponent; we’re playing for something.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.
At a glance
WHAT: Class AA, Division II state championship game
WHO: Silver Bluff (12-1) vs. Batesburg-Leesville (11-2)
WHERE: Benedict College, Columbia
WHEN: 5:30 p.m., Friday
LAST MEETING: Silver Bluff won 21-20 in the 2001 Class AA state championship game
The football team will leave Silver Bluff High School at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, and they will be recognized on their way to Columbia. Students and faculty will line Bulldog Drive as the Silver Bluff NJROTC and Silver Spirit Marching Band lead the football team off campus with a parade.