NORTH AUGUSTA — Last season’s high school football game between North Augusta and Lexington was an all-time great contest. It was a back-and-forth shootout that wasn’t decided until literally the last offensive play of the game, when the Wildcats’ second-string place kicker Adrian Leon connected on a 23-yard field goal to give his team a 59-56 win and deliver the Yellow Jackets their only loss of the regular season.
This year’s renewal of the rivalry doesn’t figure to be that kind of contest, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be compelling in its own right. Both teams made a transition from senior-laden squads a year ago to less experienced groups. The Yellow Jackets, who will hit the road for tonight’s contest scheduled to kick off at 7:30, have fared better to this point. North Augusta has posted a 4-2 non-region record, with one of the losses coming to national power Valdosta High School. The other setback was an unexpected loss to Sumter, although the Yellow Jackets rebounded from that with a thrashing of Grovetown (Ga.) before taking last Friday off during a bye week.
Lexington hasn’t had as much success. The Wildcats started the 2012 campaign with four consecutive losses before winning their past two games. Like so many teams across the state, injuries and inexperience have played a major factor in Lexington’s woes. Seven starters from the season opener have been lost for the year because of injury, and that was for a team that already had reduced expectations because of all the key seniors it lost from the 2011 squad. In spite of the slow start, North Augusta head coach Dan Pippin expects a great challenge tonight.
“This is a big game for us,” Pippin said. “It’s a rivalry, our first region game and our games (against Lexington) have been real close the last few years. We’re their homecoming, so it’s big for us.”
Lexington head coach Scott Earley was effusive in his praise for the Yellow Jackets, when addressing the challenge his team faces in its effort for a third consecutive victory.
“We play our first region game against the toughest region opponent,” Earley said. “We have to play as good as we can play, and they have to be as bad as they can be for us to win.”
The biggest challenge for the Wildcats will be keeping up with the Yellow Jacket offense. North Augusta looks as good with sophomore Trib Reece quarterbacking the offense as it did when he was sharing time with injured senior Cody Turner. For the season, North Augusta is averaging 31 points per game, including a 42-point outburst in Reece’s first start.
Reece has lots of options in the passing game. Zach Wilson, Antuan Andrews, Dre Dunbar, Devin Grimes and Trey Morgan are all among the area leaders in receiving yards. But North Augusta’s strength is running the ball, and DeVonte Pressley is among the best toting the rock. Picking his spots behind the Yellow Jackets’ big, athletic offensive line, Pressley has rushed for 738 yards and eight touchdowns on 106 carries this season. That’s an average of nearly 7 yards gained every time he carries the ball.
“North Augusta has great speed,” Earley said. “I think we’ll struggle defensively against them. … For us to win, North Augusta’s going to have to help us.”
So limiting turnovers and penalties will be paramount to the Yellow Jackets’ success.
“The turnover battle’s going to be big,” Pippin said, echoing Earley. “If you make a mistake, they’re going to capitalize. They’re good at flipping the field, so we can’t let that happen.”
They’ll also have to keep the Wildcats offense under wraps. After starting the season slow, Lexington has found its groove scoring in the past two wins – tallying a combined 76 points. Leading the way is quarterback Will Hunter. Just a junior, Hunter’s in his third year as starting quarterback and is 96-for-166 for 1,320 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He isn’t over reliant on just one target. Hunter will find the open man, and the three most productive receivers for the Wildcats so far this season are Bryson Stokes (26 receptions, 286 yards, one touchdown), Ryan McCray (24 receptions, 275 yards) and Altrye Walker (22 receptions, 401 yards, four touchdowns).
“He’s going to throw it all over the place,” Pippin said of Hunter, also complimenting Lexington’s leading rusher Grayson Chumley, who has run for 545 yards and five touchdowns. “They’re still Lexington. We need to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.”
To do so, hulking tackles Jake Whitley and Parker Collins will have to shut down defenders like linebackers Chase Austin (53 tackles, two sacks), Brandon Camp (34 tackles, 20 for loss, 10 sacks)and Cameron Matthews (36 tackles, 9 for loss, four sacks) as well as defensive back Jordan Carr (28 tackles, three interceptions and a fumble recovery). If they create space, North Augusta could get some revenge for last year’s wild loss.
“I enjoy coaching against them,” Pippin said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Noah Feit is the Sports Editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.