It has been a long offseason. There have been coaching changes, spring practice, college signings, passing camps, conditioning programs, scrimmages and jamborees since the end of the last season.


All of that activity has been building toward something. It has led to tonight, the first week of the 2014 high school football season.


This year’s Week Zero slate includes a renewal of an old rivalry between two of the traditional area powers. Strom Thurmond High School is making the trip from Johnston to take on Aiken tonight at 7:30 at Hagood Stadium.


“I’m excited to get it underway,” Aiken head coach Brian Neal said of the regular season. “We open the season with a tradition-rich program. It will be a quick barometer of where we are.”


While tonight’s outcome, and how it’s reached, will say a lot about Aiken’s status, one thing is for sure, the Hornets find themselves competing in a new region this season. Because of realignment, Aiken has gone from Class AAAA to AAA, where it will compete in Region 5-AAA. That’s the region Strom Thurmond won each of the past two seasons before it was shifted back to Class AA in realignment. The Rebels are now a member of Region 2-AA.


That’s not the biggest change for Strom Thurmond since the end of last season. While there was a large amount of player turnover, which included the loss of quarterback Jauveer Hammond and linebacker Kenyatta Dunbar – among others – to graduation, that’s an annual rite of passage for the Rebels. What’s different this season is the change at the top.


Longtime head coach Lee Sawyer retired after an incredible run of success that included a 107-24 overall record. But the Rebels will maintain continuity as Antwuan Hillary was named the head coach in Johnston. Hillary has spent the past seven seasons as a member of Sawyer’s coaching staff and has been the team’s offensive coordinator since 2010. Prior to that, Hillary was a star player for the Rebels and is the first Strom Thurmond alum to serve as head coach of the football team.


“There’s a lot of excitement in the community,” said Hillary, who prefers to put the focus on his team. “The players are ready to get after somebody else. The energy’s great, and we’re ready to get started. I’m excited for the opportunity.”


After having great continuity at quarterback, with just two players manning the position over the past five seasons, there’ll be a new player behind center for the Rebels. Tyree Stidem is making the transition from receiver to quarterback, and Hillary is counting on him to maintain the high level of play Strom Thurmond has grown accustomed to from its signal callers.


“Our quarterback play has to be good,” Hillary said. “We rely on our quarterback and will go as far as he goes. We’re counting on Tyree.”


Stidem will be supported by veteran offensive linemen and an established running game. Center Corley Christie played a significant amount of time last season, as did the left side of the Rebels’ line – guard Antonio Miles and tackle Cam Mathis. That experience could see the Rebels leaning left, with designed rollouts or runs behind the experience players.


But Strom Thurmond’s powerful and agile ball carriers are talented enough to maximize the entire gridiron. Junior Chad Gilchrist is coming off a breakthrough season, when he was among the top 10 area running backs with 145 carries for 1,120 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s expected to share carries with Stidem and Deion Chinn, another bruising back.


Aiken will try to neutralize Strom Thurmond’s power running with its size on defense. The Hornets are imposing along the line of scrimmage, with nobody any bigger than 6-foot-5, 300-pound Austin Schofield. The two-way lineman is expected to be a stalwart as a defensive tackle, clogging up running lanes, pushing the pocket and causing chaos with his size and strength. The other starting linemen in the Hornets’ 4-4 defensive front include Collin Flanders, Jalen Dugar and Jermaine Garriett.


While they will be expected to battle with power, the units behind them, especially the secondary, will need to use their athleticism and speed to contain opponents, especially one as potentially explosive as the Rebels.


“The defense has got to be great tacklers. We need to tackle in space and tackle well,” said Neal, who’s wary of Strom Thurmond’s capabilities. “We can’t let them get the ball in space. They’ve got an athletic quarterback, a big, strong running back and can cause a lot of problems.”


Hillary had a similar view of facing the Aiken offense. He wants his players to be sure tacklers, preventing short gains from turning into broken plays for big pickups in yardage and on the scoreboard. He warned that if his defenders don’t heed that advice, the Hornets have the players capable of making big plays.


“We’ve got to keep them bottled up,” Hillary said of running backs Brayton Sanders and Terrell Lewis, who can pound inside but are just as likely to bounce to an opening and run to daylight. The same can be said of the Hornets’ group of receivers – Antawn Chandler, Quamayne Simpkins, Devantae Gaiters and Brycen Carolina. If Bryson Jones can execute in his first season as the starting quarterback, he’s got a good group of skill players who have something almost as valuable as their athleticism – experience. Most of those players were on the varsity roster last season and are a step ahead, in that they can step on the field and execute rather than thinking too much about what they’re supposed to do.


“We’re further along for sure than last year, but we’ve got a long way to go. Our goal is to get better every week,” Neal said of his team, that has more experienced players on the roster than Aiken has enjoyed in several seasons. “We’re not young anymore. They’re not seniors, but they have experience. Hopefully that will mean the difference; instead of close losses, we’ll get more wins.”


The Hornets only mustered a single win last season, closing on a seven-game losing skid. But for the majority of those games, they showed maturity and improvement as the season unfolded. If that trend continues following Neal’s first full offseason of work, it could be a good year for Aiken.


It will face a huge challenge tonight. That’s how Hillary is looking at the situation as well.


“We want to play the best we can. Obviously, we want to win,” said Hillary, who will get a chance to re-evaluate his squad during next week’s bye, but is optimistic he’ll do so with a winning record. What better way to start his career as a head coach. “It would be a big-time win vs. a great program like Aiken.”


Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 15 years after graduating from Syracuse University.


TONIGHT’S GAME


• WHAT: Season opener


• WHO: Strom Thurmond at Aiken


• WHERE: Hagood Stadium, Aiken High School


• WHEN: 7:30 p.m.


• LAST MEETING: In 1991, Strom Thurmond defeated Aiken 21-13


• TV: My12, starting at 7 p.m.