The regular season is finally over for every Aiken-area high school football team, as the Class AAAA squads now know their playoff fate. For several teams, the season is only over.
While South Aiken and Aiken High failed to qualify for the postseason, four other teams saw their 2012 campaign's come to an end in first-round playoff losses. All three area squads to qualify for the Class A playoffs were defeated on Friday. Williston-Elko's loss to Ware Shoals was the least expected, as the Blue Devils (8-3) opened the Class A, Division I playoffs at home and held an 11-point lead after three quarters. In the fourth, Ware Shoals scored 28 points to pull off the 42-35 upset.
“It was just one of those nights where every time we got up, they made a big play,” Williston-Elko head coach Dwayne Garrick said. “They big-played us tonight, especially in the second half.”
The first-round playoff loss marks the earliest that Williston-Elko's season has ended since 2006. The first round is when Ridge Spring-Monetta's season has stopped in each of the past two years. The Trojans suffered the same fate following a 42-22 loss to Hunter-Kinard-Tyler. RS-M's first season under new head coach Heath Corley ends with a 4-7 record and the potential for better things next season.
The same can be said for Wagener-Salley, the third area Class A team to lose on Friday. The War Eagles' best season in a decade came to an end at Blackville-Hilda. The 26-23 loss in the playoffs was the second time this season they lost to the Hawks. But it was the first time Wagener-Salley qualified for the playoffs since 2004 and it will return much of the roster that led it to an 8-3 record this year.
“I'm really proud of what they've accomplished all year,” head coach Ken Tucker said. “They've accomplished a lot. Of course, we're disappointed in the outcome here, but I'm so proud of them for hanging in there while it took us time to turn things around in the past few years.”
Another team that has a bright future after overcoming some hardships is Midland Valley. Although the Mustangs were bounced from the first round of the Class AAA playoffs, they posted a 4-7 record after losing their first four games of the season thanks in large part to a talented young core of players on both sides of the ball. If Midland Valley continues to develop, it could find itself on the winning end of playoff games, instead of a frustrating loss, like it suffered at Berkeley, falling 24-2.
While those teams will begin the transition to looking ahead to next year, four other area squads are still focused on this season. One that will make it's 2012 postseason debut this week is North Augusta. The Yellow Jackets just completed a 8-3 regular season finishing second in Region 5-AAAA following Friday's 28-21 loss to Dutch Fork.
North Augusta is the sixth seed in the Class AA, Division II playoff bracket and will play host to Nation Ford in the first round. Had it defeated Dutch Fork, it likely would've been a No. 4 seed, which would have allowed for the possibility of home playoff games in the first two rounds.
“In our bracket, we're one of the top teams in the state. We lost two games (not counting the setback to Georgia powerhouse Valdosta) by eight points total. I wished we played better but we didn't,” said North Augusta head coach Dan Pippin, who has led the Yellow Jackets to the postseason for the sixth consecutive year. “I'm happy to be in the playoffs and happy to have a home game. I can remember when just making the playoffs was a big deal. Making the playoffs is not enough anymore.”
The Yellow Jackets have had deep playoff runs the past three seasons, but fell just shy of making the state championship game. Each of the past three playoff losses came on the road after long road trips. Pippin has tried to prepare his players for that particular challenge by incorporating more games like that in scrimmages and the regular season. North Augusta played exhibitions at Goose Creek and Greenwood – where it could play in the second round – during the summer and also made the long trek to face Valdosta.
“I hope we've been picking up lessons as we go,” Pippin said. “That stuff is helping us out now.”
Another team that will play its first postseason game this Friday is Silver Bluff. The Bulldogs (9-1) had last week off while many other teams took the field in the Class AA, Division II playoffs because they finished first in Region 5-AA and earned a bye as a No. 1 seed. Their reward is a Friday rematch with longtime rival Barnwell, which it beat in overtime in the regular-season finale only after scoring 14 points in the final 3 minutes of regulation. This marks the eighth time the teams have met in the playoffs and another Silver Bluff triumph will mean a home game on Nov. 16 against the winner of the game between Woodland and region rival Bamberg-Ehrhardt.
The only team to beat the Bulldogs this season was Strom Thurmond. The Rebels opened the playoffs last week with a 63-20 thrashing of Hilton Head, their 10th consecutive victory. Strom Thurmond's 42-14 win over Silver Bluff was its closest game of the season since opening the year with a 39-35 loss to Eastern Christian Academy, essentially an all-star team that has more than a dozen Division I commitments. The most recent blowout sets up a game against Marlboro County in the second round of the Class AAA playoffs, which could be the Rebels greatest challenge since facing ECA.
The last area team in the playoff picture has a lot in common with the Rebels. Wardlaw Academy is almost across the street from Strom Thurmond in Johnston and has also run roughshod over most of its competition. The Patriots are 9-1 and are scoring an average of more than 46 points per game. Unlike the Rebels or any other team in the playoffs, Wardlaw plays eight-man football. The Patriots opened the SCISA Eight-Man playoffs with a 72-50 victory over Charleston Collegiate last week and will have another home game this Friday against Carolina Academy. A win this week would mean a return trip to the title game for the defending state champions. That game will be played at Benedict College on Nov. 17.
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.