It’s convenient that during the holidays the ghosts of Silver Bluff’s past have appeared for three consecutive weeks.
Two weeks ago it was its rival, Barnwell, a team it had just beat two weeks prior thanks to a furious comeback. The Bulldogs answered the call the second time, as well, shutting out the Warhorses 17-0.
Last week it was Bamberg-Ehrhardt, a team they needed a last-second field goal to knock off in the regular season. In that rematch the Bulldogs came back from a 13-0 deficit with less than a minute to go in the third and won 14-13 on the arm of Jalen Jackson’s two touchdowns.
Tonight it will be Bishop England, a team that ended Silver Bluff’s quest for a state championship last year. In a rematch of the 2011 AA Lower State title game, it will be the Bulldogs (11-1) and the Battling Bishops (11-1) going toe-to-toe with a ticket to the state championship on the line.
Silver Bluff head coach Al Lown knows how fortunate it is for his team to have gotten to this point.
“Last week was a tight ball game,” he said. “We knew it’d be close, but we kept telling our kids that it’s a 48-minute game and that they had to play to the final whistle. We were able to come through in the end.”
The Bishops won last year’s game convincingly, 21-0 in Charleston. But this time the game will be played at Petticoat Junction.
It’s an advantage that Silver Bluff knows could make a difference between two teams that are evenly matched.
“It’s a big advantage, having the crowd behind us has helped,” Lown said. “We don’t have to go ride on a bus for three hours and hopefully it’ll make a difference.”
It’s also something that Bishop England’s quite aware of.
“We’re going to get there early and try to get our legs under us,” Bishop England head coach John Cantey said.
“It’s sort of like jet lag. That first quarter we need to get our mind and body right. With the holiday and all of the kids traveling and coming in and out of town there’s a lot to be distracted by.”
Both teams mirror each other in offensive philosophies, though their paths to doing so are a bit different. Silver Bluff runs its tried and true Wing-T offense and has a wealth of depth in the backfield, headlined by Shaquez Wright, who has 1,225 yards and 14 touchdowns on the year.
Myles Corbitt, RJ Stallings, Ladarise Williams and Dontay Ingram have all had breakout games as well.
Jackson’s past few weeks have featured many strides, and his ascension couldn’t have come at a better time for the team as he continues to play clutch football.
Across the field, Bishop England also keeps the ball on the ground, though they use a double-wing option offense. The star of the offense is DeAngelo Stephenson, a senior who has 981 yards and 20 TDs. But his most noteworthy stat is his 11.3 yards per carry. Stephenson, who has received attention from Wofford, Newberry, Coastal Carolina and North Illinois, sat out last week with a mild concussion and has sat out of practice this week. He’s still penciled in to start tonight.
Like the Bulldogs, the Bishops also have depth in their backfield with Nick Theos, Nick Shiver and fullback Griffie Loy. Cantey says that Loy, a state champion in shot put, is the strongest player on the team and he also plays on the defensive line. It also helps the Bishops that they have three-year starters at center (Adam Dobbins) and right guard (Malcolm Nazon).
Lown knows that his team is in for a challenge.
“We’re going to have to mix it up,” he said. “Against the option you have to play assignment football, but we also have to be aggressive. We can’t just sit back and let them run their offense.”
Both teams will also showcase strong special teams play. Pedro Zambrano’s opposite number, Drew Costa, is a three year starter and has a career long of 47 yards.
“We’ve been giving him a hard time and telling him how much better their kicker is all week,” Cantey said.
For the Bulldogs they will need another strong performance mirroring last week against the Red Raiders. Lown praised Jalen Douse for his punt coverage and Greg Dunbar’s three kickoff tackles.
Silver Bluff could be without Gyasi Yeldell again, who was on crutches last week and is still nursing a torn MCL. Lown won’t make any excuses, though, and has nothing but praise for what his players have been able to accomplish.
“This team has overcome a lot, we’ve had a lot of key injuries,” he said. “… We worked harder this offseason and summer. Everyone sees the results in season, but we’ve been working hard since January. They’re going to fight and claw to the end.”
Scott Rodgers is a graduate of Alvernia University and a staff writer at the Aiken Standard.
TONIGHT’S GAME WHO: Silver Bluff (11-1) vs. Bishop England (11-1) WHAT: Class AA, Division II Lower State championship game WHERE: The Bluff, Petticoat Junction WHEN: Tonight, 7:30 LAST MEETING: Bishop England beat Silver Bluff 21-0 last year in the Lower State championship