Strom Thurmond head coach Lee Sawyer has always stressed the importance of taking care of business in the regular season, and for the second straight week, that focus paid off with a home playoff game.
The Rebels (10-1) host Marlboro County (8-3) tonight, and Sawyer said he appreciates the opportunity.
“I love us playing at home in front of our people,” he said.
Strom Thurmond earned that right by sweeping through Region 5-AAA play, earning the No. 1 spot in the playoffs. By contrast, Marlboro County lost a single region game to 6-AAA champion Hartsville and could be on the road the rest of the way.
Sawyer said that big difference is the reason he stresses the importance of winning the region title.
“That’s very important,” he said. “That’s the other reason why you need to do what you need to do in the regular season so you can get as many home games as you can.”
The Rebels could be on the road at Hanahan for round three, if they get that far, but would be home again for the Lower State Championship game because of pre-determined host positions in the bracket.
First, they’ll have to get past a Marlboro County team that is extremely talented.
On offense, the Bulldogs have a balanced attack, both in the sense that they can run and pass as well as the fact that they spread the ball around to multiple carriers and receivers.
Senior Reggie Bright is the main threat to run with 137 carries for 1,116 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season. But senior Jaquan Cole has also carried the ball 59 times for 336 yards. The passing game could have taken a hit when senior quarterback Xavier Adams went down with an MCL injury, but sophomore London Johnson has filled in admirably.
The 5-foot-11, 155-pound signal caller has completed 45 of 89 passes on the year for 710 yards and nine touchdowns with only two interceptions, clearing the 200-yard passing mark twice in four starts.
He’s also run 25 times for 142 yards and another score, but his arm is the main concern for Sawyer.
“He’s thrown the ball a good bit,” Sawyer said.
When he does throw, his main targets are juniors Jamal Stanton and Raheem Ward and senior Mike McManus. None of the three are taller than 6 feet, but all have at least 300 yards and five touchdowns, led by Ward with 582 yards and seven scores.
“They’re not huge, but they can run,” Sawyer said.
Because of all that weaponry, field position will be key for the Rebels. Last week, the Strom Thurmond kick coverage team, led by Kenyatta Dunbar, Cody Griffith and Israel Talbert, kept the Hilton Head returners corralled all night.
Sawyer said his team will need a similar performance against the Bulldogs.
“That’s going to be important this week,” he said. “You’ve got to keep this crowd backed up.”
He’ll also be counting on his linebacking unit to keep the Bulldogs’ in check. Led by Dunbar with 88 tackles and three sacks on the season, the group also includes senior Jamal Jackson, who collected 11 tackles a week ago to push his total to 76, and senior Aaron Cook, who has 64 tackles and two interceptions this season.
The Rebels have plenty of firepower of their own on offense, led by quarterback Jauveer Hammond. The junior made Hilton Head pay for a questionable decision to defend the Rebels with man coverage by racking up 193 rushing yards and two scores on only five carries, one a 15-yard sack and another a 96-yard touchdown.
“He can run,” Sawyer said of the quarterback that now has 917 rushing yards on the season to go with 1,406 passing yards and 31 touchdowns combined. “He’s got good speed.”
Darius Hammond also has that running ability, with 1,249 rushing yards and 20 scores on the ground on the year, and receiver Ty Brooks has 894 yards and 11 receiving touchdowns to lead the area in both categories.
The Rebel offense will need to bring its best effort against the Bulldogs. Senior defensive end Saquan Ivory has 82 tackles and seven sacks on the year, and junior Ronheem Bingham has 104 tackles and also has seven sacks at the other end of the line.
That duo, combined with 305-pound junior nose guard Daryus Gillespie, has anchored a Bulldog defense that has held seven of its opponents to 14 points or less and started the season with shutout victories over Chesterfield and Cheraw.
“They’re real good on defensive line, which is a big concern,” Sawyer said.
Regardless of the quality of the opponent, Sawyer is confident in the advantage the home crowd in Johnston will bring. He said that he can always count on big, noisy crowd that is “always positive” in its interaction with the players.
“You can’t say enough about our crowds. They’re there every Friday,” he said. “I think our players really feed off of them.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.
What: Class AAA playoffs
Who: Strom Thurmond (10-1) vs. Marlboro County (8-3)
When: 7:30 p.m.
Previous Meeting: Strom Thurmond beat Marlboro County 17-14 in the 2007 playoffs
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Strom Thurmond's Darius Hammond runs up field against Hilton Head.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Strom Thurmond quarterback Jauveer Hammond takes off for a 43-yard touchdown run against Hilton Head.×
Staff photo by Jeremy Timmerman Strom Thurmond's Ty Brooks looks in a touchdown catch against Hilton Head.×