JOHNSTON — One of the most dominating seasons a high school football team can have ended as suddenly and swiftly as a single play.
That was the case for Strom Thurmond on Friday. Playing on their home field, the Rebels lost in the Class AAA Lower State championship game, falling to Hartsville 20-10.
Strom Thurmond was down by four points but driving with about a minute to play in the game. Faced with a third-and-13 scenario from the Red Foxes' 18-yard line, Rebel quarterback Jauveer Hammond dropped back to pass. He was hit from the blindside by Laquan Haigler, who jarred the ball loose from Hammond before he picked it up and raced 80 yards for game-clinching touchdown.
“I couldn't see the first part, but I saw Laquan. I saw the ball on the ground, and I didn't see who hit the Strom Thurmond guy. But I saw the ball and LaQuan, and he's the fastest guy on our team, so when he had it I felt like we had a good chance to get in the end zone,” said Hartsville head coach Jeff Calabrese, who has guided his team to a perfect 14-0 record in spite of the death of a player during a game earlier this season. “It's a big play, our backs were against the wall and Strom Thurmond was driving. Our kids made a play, we talked about that at halftime. We weren't doing a whole lot, our defense played well but our offense stunk up the joint. That's because Strom Thurmond is so dad-gum good, but our kids found a way, and that was a huge play.”
That play was magnified by other missed opportunities for the Rebels, who had three touchdowns called back because of holding penalties. They also came away empty handed on a critical drive inside the Red Foxes' 5 on the previous possession, leaving too many potential points on the field to overcome a talented and determined Hartsville squad.
“The score's not indicative of the way the game went, we were driving for the win. But we were fighting a losing battle,” said Strom Thurmond head coach Lee Sawyer as his team's season came to an end in the state semifinals for the second year in a row. “I told (my players) before the game, to remember we're the smallest AAA school in the state and we made it to the final four. I'm proud of them. We were so close but so far,” from a trip to the state title game, that will now be played between Hartsville and Union County on Dec. 1 at Williams-Brice Stadium.
The Red Foxes nearly didn't make it because of another tremendous effort from the Rebels (12-2). In a tension-filled, but mostly scoreless first half, Strom Thurmond was the first team to break through. After twice stopping Hartsville on fourth downs inside the 10-yard line in the first half, the Rebels rewarded the defensive stands with a 15-play, 95-yard touchdown drive.
Although the series was capped off by a 5-yard touchdown run by Jauveer Hammond, it was his cousin Darius Hammond who gained some of its most critical yards. After being stifled much of the game, the Rebels found a wrinkle that worked when Darius lined up as a Wildcat quarterback. On three consecutive plays, starting on his own 5-yard line, Darius had runs of 13, 12 and 3 yards to give the Rebels room to operate. Darius and Jauveer combined to finish the drive off. By the end of the game Darius gained 118 yards on 21 carries, and Jauveer ran for 124 yards on 23 rushes. But Jauveer had two critical fumbles, and Darius had two touchdowns called back because of the penalties and never found the end zone.
“(The penalties) were huge. We just couldn't overcome it,” an emotional Jauveer said, while Darius added that the negated scores were a game changer. “This was a great team and the seniors deserved (to go to a state title game), but I couldn't get it for them.”
“That was huge, especially down late in the game,” Sawyer said of the reversed scores. “But we can't let them go (96) yards, and we know that.”
Calabrese had a different outlook on the critical calls by the officials.
“It's always a big impact when things come back. I love those officials to be honest with you,” Calabrese said. “They say when you get to this round of the playoffs you always get great officials, so from my standpoint it was great officiating. It's part of the game, I know Lee will tell you that too. There's some things that go against you and some that go in your favor, and tonight, they went in our favor.”
After Trent Miller extended the Rebels' lead to 10 points midway through the third quarter, the Red Foxes responded. The team that has a run-first and run-second philosophy got itself back into the game through the air. Quarterback Shaquille Johnson connected with Trey Samuel on a 56-yard pass that gave Hartsville a first-and-goal situation. They punched the ball in three plays later when Trey Rogers scored from 3-yards out. For the game, Johnson only completed 6 of 16 passes, but he gained 175 yards, including 119 to his top target Trey Gattison.
The Rebels looked like they'd reclaim the lead on the next series, but their 17-play, 62-yard drive was stopped at the 3 when Jauveer mishandled a snap on fourth-and-goal. The Red Foxes responded with a drive worthy of a championship team. They moved the ball 96 yards on 11 plays against one of the best defenses in the state in hostile territory for the go-ahead score that ultimately turned into the game winner when Dominic Robinson ran into the end zone from 2-yards out. They put the game out of reach on the next series when Haigler made his huge play.
“I'm happy to get out of here with one more point than Strom Thurmond had,” Calabrese said. “That's a great football team, and we found a way to win tonight. It's not easy to win on this field and it doesn't matter whether it's pretty, ugly or whatever. It's not easy to do. That's respect for Strom Thurmond and their football program. and it's a big win for us.”
It will be another long offseason for the Rebels, after having such a tremendous run. It was one that included 12 consecutive wins. But they must deal with losing 19 seniors from the opening-game roster. Among them are North-South All-Star Game lineman Montel Webb, 1,000-yard receiver Ty Brooks and Darius Hammond – one of the best running backs and kick returners in South Carolina.
“We did pretty good, we just came up short. I enjoyed my time and the people I spent it with,” said the soft-spoken Darius, who offered this encouragement to his teammates. “We fought hard this year, and I wish them good luck next year.”
Clearly disappointed, Sawyer was able to appreciate the season his team had.
“They did a great job all year,” the coach said. “We had some memorable games and got to this spot. It's something to be proud of.”
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.
H 0 0 7 13 – 20
ST 0 7 3 0 – 10
ST–Jauveer Hammond 5 run (Trent Miller kick good) 1:56.
ST–Trent Miller 31 field goal 6:39.
H–Trey Rogers 3 run (Sam Williamson kick good) 3:05.
H–Dominic Robinson 2 run (Sam Williamson kick good) 3:52.
H–Laquan Haigler 80 fumble return (Sam Williamson kick failed) 0:55.
H–Trey Samuel 9-72, Trey Rogers 15-52-1TD, Dominic Robinson 8-14-1TD, Shaquille Johnson 6-7. TOTALS: 38-145-2TDs.
ST–Jauveer Hammond 23-124-1TD, Darius Hammond 21-118, James McKie 2-18, Kenyatta Dunbar 1-1, Ty Brooks 2-(-10). TOTALS: 49-251-1TD.
H–Shaquille Johnson 6-16-175.
ST–Jauveer Hammond 5-14-40-1INT.
H–Trey Gattison 5-119, Trey Samuel 1-56.
ST–Ty Brooks 2-26, Darius Hammond 2-2, Kendall Hill 1-12.