PETTICOAT JUNCTION — For the second time this postseason, the Silver Bluff High School football team will face one of the teams it defeated to win the Region 5-AA title. The Bulldogs previously defeated Barnwell in the second round of the playoffs and will face region rival Bamberg-Ehrhardt tonight in the Class AA, Division II Lower State championship game today. A win will mean Silver Bluff’s first trip to the state title game since 2001 – the last time they won it all.


“It’s exciting. It’s something we thought was a possibility at the start of the year,” said Al Lown, who’s in his 21st year as Silver Bluff head coach. “This has been one of the most enjoyable teams to coach. I hope, for them, they’ll have the chance,” to play for a state title.


But to get to Benedict College, the site of the championship, Silver Bluff will have to knock off a rapidly-improved Bamberg-Ehrhardt squad. Since losing to the Bulldogs 28-7 on Oct. 4, the Red Raiders have won six consecutive games.


That streak includes a pair of playoff wins – a 43-0 trouncing of Garrett Academy followed by a hard-fought 27-20 win over two-time defending state champion Bishop England.


While Bamberg-Ehrhardt has only surrendered an average of nine points per game during the winning streak, the biggest key to the team’s turnaround has been the return of quarterback Sumner Cooler. His first game this season was the loss to Silver Bluff. In the win over Bishop England, Cooler passed for 157 yards and two touchdowns.


He’s got a great target in tight end KC Crosby, a player committed to South Carolina who has been selected to play in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas and is an Under Armour All-American. He’s a two-way star, as is Lavares Singleton – a 250-plus pound anchor of both lines. He’s especially tough to block.


“They’ve gotten healthy,” Lown said. “Their quarterback was out the first five games when they really had to just run. Now, they can run the spread with him. This is the team we thought they’d be the past two years.”


He received help on offense from an unexpected source. After top tailback RaQuan Brown left with an injury, Tyrell Wilson carried his team to the upset win. He carried the ball 17 times for 72 yards, all in the second half, and scored the game-winning touchdown on a 15-yard run.


“We got a big effort from our quarterback and wide receivers. We had one running back go down with an injury and another who stepped up in the second half,” head coach Kevin Crosby told the Post and Courier of Charleston, explaining that his squad was able to prevail because it’s battle-tested. “We play in a region that has a tough game every week. We play a team like this every week. We’re used to big games.”


The Red Raiders are also used to playing the Bulldogs. This is the second season in a row the Region 5-AA rivals have played twice in the same campaign.


A year ago, the Bulldogs rallied for a thrilling 31-29 win over the Red Raiders in the regular season, a game that was decided by a last-second field goal. They played again in the Class AA, Division II quarterfinals, and the Bulldogs narrowly prevailed again – eking out a 14-13 victory.


“Last year, they were classic games,” said Lown, who noted that the teams have played against each other for so many seasons that there’s great familiarity. “Even before they were in our region, we would scrimmage them every year. It goes back a long way. There will be no surprises.”


When Silver Bluff and Bamberg-Ehrhardt played earlier this season, it wasn’t nearly as competitive as last year’s contests. The Red Raiders had lost four of five games when they played host to a Bulldog squad that was in the middle of what’s now an 11-game winning streak.


In that game, The Bulldogs used a balanced rushing attack, with Shaquez Wright leading the way with 103 yards and a touchdown. RJ Stallings added 78 yards on five carries, and Miles Corbitt carried the ball nine times for 78 yards.


Senior quarterback Jaylen Lawrence had a hand in the rest of the scoring. He ran for a touchdown and completed 2 of 3 passes for 73 yards, with one of the completions going for a 50-yard score to McKenzie Wilson. Lawrence, also a safety, returned an interception for a score.


“We’ve played pretty solid football all year long,” Lown said. “I’m pleased with where we’re at. … If you’re fundamentally sound and can run the ball, it’s going to pay off in the playoffs.”


Few teams can run the ball as well as the Bulldogs out of the Wing-T. They’re led by Wright, a powerful back who is the hammer that smashes up the middle of the field. The senior has carried the ball 140 times this season for 1,257 and 14 touchdowns. But he was limited last week, leaving the 35-12 victory over Woodland with an injury.


“He’ll be back,” Lown said of Wright. “He had what looked like a concussion so we pulled him out and didn’t take any chances, but he’s alright and is good to go. … We’re in good shape overall. We’ve got some bumps and bruises, but we’ve prepared for this. We started shortening practices some time ago and don’t hit too much. It goes a long way to help on Friday’s. We’ve got to be healthy.”


Even if Wright isn’t 100 percent, the Bulldogs have lots of options running the ball. The top player firing around the ends on the jet sweep is Stallings. Perhaps the fastest and most elusive player in the Aiken area, Stallings has run the ball 79 times for 999 yards and 13 touchdowns. He, along with Wilson (24 receptions, 263 yards, three touchdowns), is the top target in the passing game – making 10 catches for 205 yards and three more scores.


Corbitt has been a threat running the ball all season for Silver Bluff, totaling 590 yards and six touchdowns on 81 carries. Corbitt stepped up in Wright’s absence last week, rushing for 128 yards and a touchdown. But he wasn’t even the Bulldogs’ top runner, as DeAngilo Drayton more than filled in with 19 carries for 162 yards and two touchdowns. While each of these ball carriers is uniquely talented and tough to stop, Silver Bluff’s success starts up front.


“The offensive line is the strength of our team,” Lown said. “They open up some holes I could run through. They understand the (Wing-T) offense and what we’re trying to do.”


Expect the Bulldogs to try and follow their winning formula – run the ball, build an early lead and play punishing defense. Should it work again tonight, it would mean another shot at a state title for Lown.


“As old as I’m getting, how many more opportunities (at a state championship) will I get?” Lown asked. “But I get more enjoyment seeing the kids enjoy themselves. I’ve seen everything that can happen – good or bad. For me, it’s about the enjoyment of the kids. I appreciate it a lot more now.”


Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.


TODAY’S GAME


What: Class AA, Division II Lower State Championship


Who: Bamberg-Ehrhardt (7-5) at Silver Bluff (11-1)


Where: The Bluff, Petticoat Junction


When: 7:30 p.m.


Last Meeting: Silver Bluff defeated Bamberg-Ehrhardt 28-7 this season