Five area high school teams are still alive in their respective playoff brackets, and four of them come as no surprise. Wardlaw Academy is playing for its second straight South Carolina Independent School Association 8-man title, and North Augusta, Strom Thurmond and Silver Bluff regularly advance a few rounds in the South Carolina High School League playoffs.
Then there’s Ridge Spring-Monetta.
The Trojans (7-5), who hadn’t advanced past the first round since 2007, are in the Class A, Division II Upper State title game after a 56-12 road thrashing of Great Falls.
Head coach Heath Corley admitted that even he was pleasantly surprised with the team’s turnaround since falling to fifth place in Region 4-A with a loss to Wagener-Salley to close out the regular season. He attributed the change to his defense.
“The coaches and I kind of talked about that (Friday) night,” he said. “The defense is giving us a couple extra possessions and setting us up offensively.”
Now, Ridge Spring-Monetta will travel to face Region 4-A foe Hunter-Kinard-Tyler (10-2), who finished second in the region to earn the top seed in the draw. The first time the two Trojan squads met, H-K-T came away with a 20-13 win, and Corley said that the previous meeting could be a mixed blessing.
“I think the familiarity with what’s going on, that’s always a plus,” he said. “But the flip side of that is they’ve seen us, too.”
Former Ridge Spring-Monetta head coach Mark Rodgers, now at Wardlaw (10-2), is also preparing for a familiar opponent in W.W. King Academy, this time for the state championship. The Knights (12-1) won 34-26 when the teams met at the end of the regular season, the second of a pair of season-ending losses for the Patriots.
The defeats came after star running back Malik Lee – whom Rodgers estimated had 1,800 yards and 32 touchdowns – broke his ankle to end his season.
“We had to find our identity without a big-play back, and now we have an entourage of big 5-yard backs,” Rodgers said.
One of those backs is quarterback-turned-tailback Holton Manley, who had 199 yards on 18 carries in Friday’s 44-28 win over Carolina Academy, and another is Rycharde Coates, who had 173 yards and three scores of his own.
Friday’s championship game will be at an undetermined site, likely either Augusta Christian or in Columbia. Rodgers said SCISA officials initially wanted the two teams, only about 20 miles apart, to travel to St. Matthews, which is 70 miles from King and roughly 90 miles from Wardlaw. He said the coaches nixed that idea because it wasn’t ideal for either school.
Back in SCHSL play, North Augusta is one of three area schools that knows exactly where its next game will be played: at home. The Jackets (11-1) smoked Laurens 42-11 and will now host Beaufort (9-3), a team that beat Aiken 21-0 earlier in the year.
Even though North Augusta beat the Hornets 55-13 just a couple weeks ago, North Augusta head coach Dan Pippin said the games were far enough apart that it can be tough to compare the performances. He went on to say that even though the second round of the playoffs is a regular occurrence in North Augusta these days, it’s still a special step toward team goals.
“It’s still pretty cool. I know that it’s the same feeling,” he said, comparing it to programs like RS-M that are advancing for the first time in several years. “This is huge. One of our goals is to practice on Thanksgiving. There’s only two left: practice on Thanksgiving and play for a state championship.”
Strom Thurmond (11-1), also a perennial playoff force, advanced to the third round for the seventh straight season with a 27-17 win over North Myrtle Beach on Friday. The Rebels will look to advance to the state semifinals – this time the Class AAA, Upper State final – for the third consecutive year when they host Myrtle Beach (8-4) on Friday. The Rebels have faced the Seahawks twice in head coach Lee Sawyer’s tenure, the first time a 32-14 win for Strom Thurmond on the way to the 2005 Class AAA title and the second a 30-6 Myrtle Beach win.
“We’ve played them a couple times in the playoffs since I’ve been here,” Sawyer said of the Seahawks, now coached by Mickey Wilson. “We know a little bit about them. It’s a different head coach, but they do the same stuff. They love to throw the ball, a lot of screens and stuff like that.”
Silver Bluff (11-1) – which advanced to the third round of the Class AA, Division II playoffs with a 28-0 shutout of region foe Barnwell on Friday – also has some familiarity with is next opponent. Woodland (10-1) will be looking to beat the Bulldogs for the first time after falling four times in the last decade.
Bulldog head coach Al Lown said that his group of seniors – some of whom are fourth-year starters like Shaquez Wright, James Jacks, Gyasi Yeldell and Jalen Douse – are looking for nothing short of a trip to Columbia for the state title game on Dec. 6.
“This is something we’ve been directing our focus on all year,” Lown said. “Pretty much anything less than playing for the state championship will be disappointing, to be honest with you.”
All the SCHSL teams will continue their quest in that direction at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, with the details for Wardlaw’s game still undecided.
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.
This week’s games
Class AAAA, Division II
• Beaufort at North Augusta
• Myrtle Beach at Strom Thurmond
Class AA, Division II
• Woodland at Silver Bluff
Class A, Division II
• Ridge Spring-Monetta at Hunter-Kinard-Tyler
8-Man State Championship Game
• Wardlaw vs. W.W. King, site TBD