The Lower State half of the Class AAA playoffs has been “all chalk” this year, with all the higher seeds winning to this point. The only break from that was a slight one, with both road No. 1 seeds beating their home opponents and setting up this week’s Lower State final between Strom Thurmond (12-1) and Hartsville (13-0).


Despite its lone loss to Eastern Christian Academy in Week Zero, Strom Thurmond is hosting this game because of the pre-determined sites for games between teams of the same seed. The same system had the Rebels on the road last week against Hanahan.


While head coach Lee Sawyer said he’s always thankful to be playing in front of the home crowd, location is less important against the No. 1 team in the state in the last media poll. Strom Thurmond was No. 4.


“This time of year, it doesn’t really matter where you play,” Sawyer said.


The Red Foxes have already been in the news this season with the death of senior offensive lineman Ronald Rouse. He collapsed on the field in a game on Oct. 5 and Rouse died from complications of an enlarged heart. Head coach Jeff Calabrese said the healing process is ongoing for his team.


“One step at a time,” Calabrese said. “One day at a time, one step at a time. That’s all we can do.”


On the field, Hartsville hasn’t missed a beat, going undefeated in Region 6-AAA play on the strength of a Wing-T attack that has resulted in three players with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 17 scores on the ground.


Leading the way is senior Trey Samuel, who has racked up 1,909 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns on 140 carries this year.


At 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, speed is the key to Samuel’s production.


“You can’t let him get on the edge,” Sawyer said. “He’s one that can go the distance on you if he gets the corner.”


Fullback Trey Rogers, a 5-11, 215-pound senior, has also been “getting chunks of yards” this year – 1,342 on 153 carries – and has found the end zone 18 times. Rounding out the rushing attack is 5-6, 175-pound running back Dominic Robinson, with 1,173 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground.


While the Red Foxes certainly run more than they throw – 506 rushing attempts to 113 passes on the year – the passing game can still be an issue. Senior quarterback Shaquille Johnson has completed 47 of his 106 attempts for 812 yards and 17 touchdowns. He’s got a favorite target with 680 of the yards and 16 of the scores going to 6-1, 175-pound senior Trey Gattis.


Sawyer said the potential for big passing plays following up a string of runs has caught his staff’s attention.


“That’s something that is a big concern,” Sawyer said.


Defensively, he said the key will lie at the back of the formation at the free safety position. For the Rebels, that’s senior Demetrius Leysath, and Sawyer said he’ll have to be focused. Leysath will be required to help as an extra linebacker in running situations and stay deep in passing situations, which will mean discipline is crucial.


“Anytime you play the Wing-T, the free safety’s important,” Sawyer said.


While the Rebels’ 3-5 attack might be seen as an asset against the Red Foxes because of its eight men in the box, Calabrese said the formation isn’t as important as the quality of the defense. There’s no question for Calabrese at what level the Rebels play on the defensive side of the ball.


“Strom Thurmond would be good if they were in any defense,” he said. “Coach Sawyer and his guys play defense the way it’s supposed to be played.”


One area that the Red Foxes have been less than stellar is in ball security, fumbling 15 times on the season and losing 11 of them. They’ve managed to cause 31 fumbles and recover 12 of those, but Strom Thurmond senior running back Darius Hammond hasn’t fumbled since his sophomore year.


On the other side of the ball, Calabrese was very complimentary of the Rebels’ main weapons. He said that there was no way to gameplan for the type of attack his team will see in Johnston tonight, other than fine-tuning his usually stout 3-4 scheme.


“We know that Jauveer Hammond is a bolt of lightning … Darius Hammond is a bolt of lightning with some other abilities,” he said. “We know that Ty Brooks is a fantastic wide receiver, and we know their offense is excellent at blocking.”


That assessment encapsulates what has made the Rebels so potent on offense this season, led by Jauveer’s 1,653 passing yards, 1,131 rushing yards and 34 combined scores on the ground and through the air. Darius scored all three Rebel touchdowns last week to bring his total to 26 on the year – running, receiving and returning kicks and punts to go with 1,448 rushing yards. Brooks cleared the 1,000-yard mark receiving with his efforts last week and has 11 touchdown catches on the year.


Sawyer said success against the Red Fox defense will depend on the Hammonds’ success on the ground.


“We’ve got to really establish the run … to free us up in the passing game a little bit,” he said.


The running game will also serve to stem the pass rush that Hartsville will look to bring against Jauveer. Four Red Foxes have six sacks or more on the year, led by defensive end Dequan Reddick with 9˝ and fellow end Dwayne McDaniel with 6˝.


Sawyer highlighted Reddick, a 6-4, 265-pound senior, as a cause for concern, and said tackles Jake Goforth and Salathian Simpkins would need to give their best effort to keep Jauveer’s jersey as clean as possible on passing plays.


“We can’t let (Reddick) dominate the game,” Sawyer said.


The winner of tonight’s game will punch a ticket to Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia for the Class AAA state championship game next Saturday. Waiting there will be the winner of tonight’s Upper State final between Region 1-AAA champion Daniel (12-1) and surprising Region 3-AAA No. 3 seed Union County (8-5), coached by former University of South Carolina quarterback Steve Taneyhill.


Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.


TONIGHT’S GAME


What: Class AAA, Lower State Championship


Who: Strom Thurmond (12-1) at Hartsville (13-0)


Where: Johnston


When: 7:30 p.m.


Last Meeting: This is the teams’ first meeting