Tuesday, April 29, 2014
JOHNSTON — Antwaun Hillary was named the head football coach at Strom Thurmond High School, replacing Lee Sawyer who resigned in March.
Hillary, who has served on the Rebels coaching staff for seven years, was approved by the Edgefield School District Board of Trustees on Tuesday night at the monthly meeting. He was officially named the 11th head coach in program history during a ceremony at the school’s new field house on Wednesday morning.
“I can bring a lot of energy to the program,” said Hillary, who thanked those involved in hiring him, as well as his family, Rebel fans and Sawyer, who was on hand to see one of his top assistants replace him. “It’s like a dream.”
The 31-year-old Hillary is a Strom Thurmond alum, and he starred for the football team before graduating in 2000.
The Augusta State graduate returned to his alma mater as an assistant coach in 2007, when he served as the quarterbacks’ coach.
He was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2010, and the program with a rich football tradition enjoyed its greatest success scoring points under Hillary’s guidance.
In 2011, the Rebels scored a school-record 597 points during the season, averaging a shade less than 46 points per game. The following season, Strom Thurmond totaled 589 points, easily outdistancing the old record of 510 scored in 1996.
“This program means the world to me. This is my baby,” Hillary said. “I love this place, I played here.”
Hillary’s the first Strom Thurmond graduate to be the head football coach for the Rebels. He’s now charged with replacing Sawyer, who has made the Rebels one of the elite programs in South Carolina in his 10 years as head coach. Sawyer retired as the 53-year-old football program’s winningest coach, with a 107-24 overall record – an astounding .817 winning percentage.
The Rebels have been a fixture in the playoffs, a menace to opponents in two classifications (Class AAA and Class AA), three regions (twice in 5-AAA, as well as 4-AAA and 3-AA) and won the Class AAA state title in 2005. This past season, Sawyer guided the Rebels to an 11-2 record before falling to eventual state champion Myrtle Beach in the state quarterfinals. The offense that Hillary designed scored 56 touchdowns.
Sawyer’s teams weren’t just good, they were dominant – winning 10 or more games eight times. He won nine region titles, posting a 48-2 record against region opponents despite being realigned four different times in 10 years. The success wasn’t limited to the regular season. Sawyer’s playoff record was 22-9 (. 710) and his teams made it to at least the third round of the playoffs in eight of 10 years.
“We needed someone who would preserve the program that’s been established at Thurmond, but someone who would take it further,” school principal Jill Jett said.
She followed that by handing a football to Hillary as she introduced him, more than a metaphor that he’s the right man to pass the torch to. Hillary said his goal was to build on the success that Sawyer has established, but he admitted it won’t be easy, and he isn’t trying to be exactly like his predecessor.
“I’m never going to fill his shoes. Someone like Coach Sawyer comes around once in a lifetime. Coach Sawyer was great for this program,” said Hillary, who won’t just try to match Sawyer’s success, but improve upon it. “We could go up. We’ve been at a high level for so long, but we can still go up.
“I’m a blue-collar guy. I started from the bottom and never thought I’d be up here. Hard work and determination has paid off for me, and I want to tell everybody that’s not going to stop.”
According to Edgefield County superintendent Greg Anderson, there isn’t a doubt that Hillary is the man for the job.
“We feel like we have the best coach in America to take over now as the head football coach at Strom Thurmond High School,” Anderson said.
The next challenge for Hillary is assembling a coaching staff. He said he’ll reach out to the other members of Sawyer’s staff, to gauge their interest in returning. While he’ll be looking for a defensive coordinator to lean on, in guiding a defense that flourished under Sawyer, Hillary will remain the offensive coordinator.
“I’m going to continue to call the offense and call my own plays. We’ve got the right ingredients here, but I’m going to see what’s the best fit for the kids,” said Hillary, who will continue to have to work quickly with spring practice less than two weeks away. He said he’s looking forward to hitting the field with his players as their head coach. “I can’t wait. I’m going to bring a lot of energy and, hopefully, they’ll pick up on that and match it.”
As far as long-term goals, they’re fairly simple for Hillary. Win games and build better men.
“We want to win, that’s just what we do here. Winning don’t just come with just going out there on Friday night. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into that winning. I want to get the most I can get out of my players and make them better people,” Hillary said. “I just want to make sure we’re winning in every aspect, not just football. I want to make sure our players are winning in life, too.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard.
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