Wardlaw Academy and St. John’s Christian Academy couldn’t be in two more different situations. Yet tonight they will be on the same field vying for the SCISA 8-man state championship.

The Patriots come into the game as a perennial powerhouse with the pedigree of going undefeated in three of the past four seasons. They aren’t undefeated this year, but have returned to the championship game. The team is led by first-year head coach Mark Rodgers, and it has made a smooth transition to a new system.

Across the field, the Cavaliers have made their return to 8-man football. After playing for the state championship in 2004 and 2005, the school made the decision to commit to 11-man football. The move cost them in terms of enrollment, as the school now has just 35 boys in grades 9 through 12 according to athletic director Bob Winters. The decision was made by the school to go back to 8-man football this year, and the commitment will last one more year before the program is re-evaluated.

The Patriots know this is a game that won’t be easy.

“We have to control the ball and make them play our game instead of theirs,” Rodgers said. “They’re speedy and score quick. Their tailback is one of the best I’ve seen on tape all year.”

That tailback would be Rashae Bey, who has 2,704 yards and 39 touchdowns and he hasn’t played into the second half in any game this season. Quarterback Evan Hammond has thrown for 1,874 yards with 27 touchdowns against just five interceptions for the Cavaliers. It’s an offense that operates out of the spread and gives multiple looks.

Rodgers said he believes his defense is up to the challenge.

“Last week the defense played well,” he said. “They held (Carolina Academy) after two turnovers. The secondary did its job and our inside linebackers have done well for their first year.”

Of course, it also helps the Patriots that their offense is just as explosive as their counterparts. That starts up front with their linemen.

“The offensive line is the motor that starts the car,” Rodgers said. “They blocked well and had their best overall game as a unit. We hope they can do that for at least one more week.”

The biggest challenge facing the Patriots will be health.

“Everyone is beat up,” Rodgers said. “We’re not going to over coach them. We’re just going to do what Wardlaw Academy does on offense and defense. We’re going to work on our fundamentals and execute. The team who is good in both of those aspects usually wins.”

Scott Rodgers is a graduate of Alvernia University and a staff writer at the Aiken Standard.

TONIGHT’S GAME WHO: Wardlaw Academy (10-1) vs. St. John’s Academy (11-1) WHAT: SCISA 8-man championship game WHERE: Calhoun Academy; Academy Road, St. Matthews WHEN: Tonight, 7 LAST MEETING: Wardlaw beat St. John’s 22-16 in 2007