The Yellow Jackets have made this trip before.
Tonight, for the second round of the Class AAAA, Division II playoffs, the North Augusta High School football team will make the 2-plus hour trek to Greenwood, where it will face the undefeated Eagles (12-0). The Jackets (9-3) made this same journey just two years ago for another pivotal playoff game. In that game, Greenwood prevailed 34-21 to advance to the state championship game.
“There’s familiarity between the programs,” North Augusta head coach Dan Pippin said of the rivals. He wasn’t just referring to the 2010 postseason contest, but was directly alluding to the annual trip the Yellow Jackets make every August, when they travel to Greenwood for a preseason scrimmage, something the squads did prior to the start of the 2012 campaign. “The scrimmage was tough and physical, but there’s mutual respect, especially between the coaching staffs. It was knock down and drag out with the players getting after it, but it was clean.”
Pippin said he schedules annual scrimmages at Greenwood and Goose Creek – two of the winningest programs in South Carolina in recent years – to help prepare his team for the rigors of the regular season.
“After those scrimmages, the season gets easier,” Pippin said.
He also has his team literally go to great lengths in an effort to prepare them for a roadblock the Yellow Jackets haven’t gotten past under Pippin’s guidance. In spite of great success and school-record win totals, North Augusta hasn’t won a playoff game away from Jackets Stadium since Pippin became head coach in 2006.
This is the sixth consecutive season Pippin has led his team into the postseason. In each of the past five years, successful Jacket squads have lost their last game on the road – falling at Westside, Laurens, Greenwood and Goose Creek – twice.
“Since I’ve been here, I haven’t won a playoff game on the road – ever,” Pippin said, before offering a logical rationale. “On the road in the playoffs, you’re usually playing somebody good, so it’s a tough task.”
That’s certainly the case tonight, but Pippin has tried to attack the challenge head on. This season, in addition to the scrimmages against Greenwood and Goose Creek, North Augusta traveled a long distance to play another daunting foe in a high-stakes game. All the way back on Sept. 1, North Augusta traveled to North Gwinnett High School just outside of Atlanta to play Georgia powerhouse Valdosta in the National Football Challenge, one of a series of games on the day to be nationally televised.
Although the Jackets lost that game, 28-7, they planted the seeds that Pippin must hope will bloom tonight in spite of a late autumn chill. North Augusta is battle-tested, something Pippin also thought his team got in a 28-21 loss at Dutch Fork in the regular-season finale. The Jackets have been through the rigors and faced the challenges head on. The only thing that’s missing now is a win away from home in one of these marquee games.
“The kids are buying in,” Pippin said. “We’re 9-3 with a chance to move on. That says a lot about these kids and our program.”
One thing most of the kids on North Augusta can’t claim is starting in the 2010 playoff game at Greenwood. According to Pippin, only Trey Morgan started in that playoff loss, although several of his teammates were on the team that battled the Eagles closely for three quarters. Morgan could play a critical role for the Jackets tonight, especially if they’re going to be victorious.
As usual, he’ll be counted on to be a possession receiver who’s a threat to break loose on any play, something he can also do as a Wildcat quarterback as well as kick returner. But he’ll be most valuable as a safety in North Augusta’s secondary.
That’s where he’ll be called upon to read what Greenwood’s offense is doing out of its Wing-T formation. Morgan will have to come up as often as possible to help stuff the run and prevent short gains from becoming big plays. But he’ll also have to be aware of the Eagles’ passing game, which is always a threat to strike against an unsuspecting opponent.
“Having Trey helps,” Pippin said of his talented senior with 101 tackles this season. “We can’t give up yards after contact.”
Leading the way for Greenwood is Evin Sims. The senior quarterback is a threat while passing, completing 34 of 89 attempts this season for 590 yards and four touchdowns. His favorite target has been Aaron Broadwater, who has 21 receptions for 421 yards and four touchdowns.
But Sims is most dangerous as the distributor of the running game. He feeds the ball to lots of teammates and isn’t shy about calling his own number. For the year, he’s gained 852 yards and scored a team-best 21 touchdowns on 123 carries.
“Everything runs through him,” Pippin said of Sims. “They’ll do some jet sweeps and toss sweeps, but mostly they’re in the middle of the line with the quarterback.”
When Sims isn’t pulling it down on a keeper, he’s got options to share the ball. As a team, the Eagles had 508 carries for 3,864 yards this season. That’s a team average of 7.6 yards per carry.
Their leading rusher is Octavious Morgan, who has 87 carries for 1,049 yards and 14 touchdowns. But Greenwood also has three more players with close to or more than 500 yards rushing, including David Davis (113 carries, 591 yards, 11 touchdowns), Larenzo Mathis (59 carries, 531 yards, two touchdowns) and D.J. Wright (41 carries, 494 yards, one touchdown).
The game could turn into a slugfest when Greenwood has the ball. It will be vital for North Augusta to maintain discipline in its reads and assignments and get good push up front. The Jackets have some players who fly to the ball, including Morgan, Kris Howard and Ronald Williams. Howard has 161 tackles this season while Williams has recorded 104 stops. They’ll need to be at their best to limit the Eagles and prevent them from mounting long drives that result in points.
What would best help the Jackets’ defense is a strong showing from the offense. Like their counterparts on the defensive line, North Augusta’s offensive front must be up to the challenge of facing a big and strong defense at the line of scrimmage. If they don’t, it could be a difficult night for DeVonte Pressley, the senior tailback who leads all Aiken-area running backs with 1,742 rushing yards on 233 carries, scoring 16 touchdowns.
Offensive line struggles could also mean bad things for Trib Reece. The sophomore has excelled since taking over as the starting quarterback, but he’s facing an aggressive pass rush. Jaysyn Dawson leads the Eagles with 6.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss, but Davon Durant (79 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss) and Keion Dye (63 tackles, 3.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss) are equally intimidating. Reece will need time in the biggest game of his life to date to find his corps of receivers, including Morgan, Devin Grimes, Dre Dunbar and Zach Wilson.
In spite of all the challenges and past history, Pippin is optimistic.
“It’s fun, but the kids realize what’s at stake,” Pippin said. “I think it’s going to be a great game and an opportunity we have to move on.”
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.
WHO: North Augusta (9-3) at Greenwood (12-0)
WHAT: Second round of the Class AAAA, Division II playoffs
WHERE: Greenwood High School; 1816 Cokesbury Rd, Greenwood
WHEN: Tonight, 7:30
LAST MEETING: Greenwood beat North Augusta 34-21 in the 2010 playoffs