When crosstown rivals Aiken High and South Aiken High School have met on the gridiron the past few seasons, there hasn’t been much at stake beyond bragging rights.
The proud programs have played in the last game of the season the past four years as Region 5-AAAA rivals. But neither has posted a winning season over that stretch, nor have they qualified for the playoffs. So other than playing for pride, little has been on the line.
That couldn’t be further from the truth tonight when the teams play at Hagood Stadium at Aiken High.
The longtime rivals are playing in August for the first time since 2009 because of realignment, which has seen Aiken shift to Class AAA. It’s just the second game of the season for the Hornets (0-1), who lost a 17-10 nailbiter to Strom Thurmond in Week Zero. It is the first game of 2014 for the Thoroughbreds, who come into tonight’s contest – scheduled to kickoff at 7:30 p.m. – on a roll.
South Aiken finished 2013 with back-to-back wins, including a 23-6 victory over Aiken. Tonight, the T-Breds will look to extend that success while attempting to beat the Hornets three times in a row for the first time in the history of the rivalry. More importantly, they’ll try to win three games in a row for the first time under head coach Jeremy West.
“It would be huge,” West said of the prospect of the concurrent three-game winning streaks, pointing out the importance of capitalizing on a fresh start. “One thing we’re lacking is a winning environment. We want to win that first game.”
Although Aiken wasn’t able to accomplish that, it has to feel good about its Week Zero performance. The Hornets were more than competitive against a Strom Thurmond squad which is ranked second in the state in the Class AA South Carolina Prep Media Football Poll. With a full offseason under second-year head coach Brian Neal and a solid core of players with experience being on the varsity, the Hornets looked better than they have in some time.
They were led by a balanced performance from quarterback Bryson Jones, who passed for more than 100 yards and a touchdown in his first start and was productive running the ball. He’s supported by tailback Brayton Sanders, an explosive runner capable of making game-changing plays out of the backfield or as a kick returner. Sanders also started on defense last week but won’t tonight in what might be a move to try and keep Aiken’s premier playmaker fresh.
Aiken also has capable skill position players on the perimeter, a group that includes Antawn Chandler, Brycen Carolina, Quamayne Simpkins and Devante Gaiters. For all of the speed these targets boast, Neal said the game will likely be determined by how his players perform at the line of scrimmage.
“We’ve got to play well up front,” Neal said. “If we do that, we’ll be all right. If not, it’ll be a long night. We’re going to lean on our big guys.”
That’s what West expects, as well.
“They’re real physical, on both sides,” West said. “They’re big, and the size is a concern. … Our work cut out for us.”
Aiken has a size advantage over its rivals, but stamina could be an issue for the big players – including Austin Schofield. The hulking lineman is one of four Hornets who will start both on offense and defense, providing an endurance challenge.
South Aiken also has four two-way starters and will also be put to the test physically. It won’t be easy playing its first game in the searing heat.
One of the players expected to be on the field a lot for the T-Breds is Rasool Clemons. He recently committed to Virginia, where’s he’s expected to play defensive end. Tonight, however, he’ll line up as an outside linebacker and wide receiver.
Defensively, he’ll essentially be doing what he’s done as a lineman the past two seasons, rush the passer and attack the football. The main difference is he’ll do it from a two-point stance and might not be as easy to double or triple team, attention he’s regularly drawn.
Working as a receiver opposite speedy sophomore Harold Hilton is something new for Clemons. But West is adamant that he wants his best players on the field as much as possible, and the towering Clemons presents a big and athletic target for Bowen Smith.
The junior quarterback takes over for Bo Baldwin – a three-year starter who graduated after last season. The change in personnel also means a change in scheme for the T-Breds, who will move away from a pro-style two-back formation to a pistol look, that will utilize an H-Back. Smith was accurate with short, quick passes to the perimeter in the Aiken County Jamboree, letting his playmakers try to do damage after catching the ball. But running the football will still be critical for South Aiken if its going to be successful.
“We’ve got to execute and play a good football game,” West said. “We’ve got to know our assignments and can’t turn the ball over.”
A small but athletic offensive line will be called on to open holes for sophomore Tancey Richardson and senior Malik Lee – a transfer from Wardlaw Academy. Both are game changers and are tough to tackle, but even more dangerous if they reach the second level of the defense.
“They look athletic and can run hard and quick,” Neal said. “We’ve got our hands full.”
It will take another great effort from the Hornets if they’re going to win. Not only are they trying to snap their skid to the T-Breds, but they’re looking to end an eight-game losing streak, dating back to last season. West knows how hungry for a win Aiken will be but is focused on getting his team off to a good start in a frenzied environment.
“This gets things going,” West said. “It’s going to be a big atmosphere, and the game means something. I hope this helps us down the road, being in a big game. It can catapult our season. And when it’s all said and done, it’s still a rivalry game. … It’s big for the community.”
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.
WHO: South Aiken (0-0) at Aiken (0-1)
WHERE: Hagood Stadium, Aiken High School
WHEN: 7:30 p.m.
LAST MEETING: South Aiken defeated Aiken 23-6 last season
TV: My12 (starting at 7 p.m.)