It may be tough for many to remember, but the Strom Thurmond High School football team lost a good bit of talent after last season, with five All-Aiken Standard players graduating from the Rebel program. Three of those were first-team selections, and four were on the offensive side of the ball.

This season, all head coach Lee Sawyer did was roll out a 12-2 squad and seven more first-team choices on the way to hosting the Class AAA Lower State championship game. That was good enough for him to be named the 2012 Aiken Standard Coach of the Year.

He was happy to receive the honor but deflected praise to his surrounding cast.

“Well, I mean it’s very flattering because we’ve got a lot of great coaches in the area … but I think it’s a tribute to our program and our guys,” Sawyer said.

He said the secret to replacing the level of talent his coaching staff has to every year is in the planning they do at a preseason retreat. The STHS coaches go over their plan for the season and try to find a combination that allows experienced players to take the field alongside younger guys in the starting lineup. That way, there will always be players like Ty Brooks, the area’s leading receiver this season, to take over for Marquez Mathis, the Rebels’ top target a year ago.

“I think, for us at least, I think you can never be completely gutted in your lineup year to year,” he said. “We do a pretty good job of putting guys in the right places and always having three- and four-year starters.”

Former Rebel quarterback Coco Hillary, who went on to play college football at Appalachian State before returning to the area as an assistant coach at fellow Region 5-AAA competitor Midland Valley, said that the intensity of the practices Sawyer runs is another key to player development.

“You step on any plateau of his, the intensity has to go up,” Hillary said of his former coach.

Sawyer really showed his ability to fill holes this season with first-year quarterback Jauveer Hammond. The junior was a starter in the defensive backfield a year ago but took over the signal calling duties from three-year starter Raleigh Yeldell, now at Newberry College.

With a supportive Sawyer completely behind him, Hammond made a seamless transition and his impressive season included better than 3,200 total yards of offense and he was selected as the All-Aiken Standard first-team quarterback.

Hammond’s big season began in the Rebels’ Week Zero opener, when he ran for 83 yards and a score and threw for 215 yards and three touchdowns in a 39-35 loss to ballyhooed foe Eastern Christian Academy (Md.). Sawyer said that game, which Strom Thurmond might have been expected to lose by a much bigger margin to a team full of Division I prospects, was the first time in his career that losing hasn’t tasted completely bitter. He said both he and his players knew from that game that they could accomplish big things.

“I always hate to lose,” Sawyer said. “With that one, I really didn’t feel that way. … I think it kind of opened our guys’ eyes.”

After starting the year against such high-caliber opponent, the Rebels’ next few games against rivals Saluda, Batesburg-Leesville, South Aiken and Silver Bluff were won with ease. The closest margin of victory was a 42-14 win over Silver Bluff. While Sawyer recognized that his players and the Rebel fans place great importance on the rivalries, those matchups just couldn’t compare to ECA.

“Everything else just kind of slows down for you,” he said.

Then came Region 5-AAA play. In a region that included several potentially stout opponents, including a Swansea team that eventually rose to No. 1 in Class AAA, Sawyer said he expected a tougher fight for the region crown. It didn’t happen as the Rebels were a perfect 5-0 in region play.

“Looking at it on paper going into the year, I felt pretty good about it,” he said of the region race. “I never really expected we wouldn’t have a close game in those five region games.”

It was Swansea – along with Airport – that gave Sawyer’s team its toughest test of the region slate. But the Rebels still beat the then-No. 1 Tigers by 35 points to eventually go into the Class AAA playoffs as the region’s top seed.

The Rebels cruised to two more playoff wins over Hilton Head and Marlboro County at home before collecting a close win on the road at Hanahan. Their season came to an end in the Lower State title game against eventual state champion Hartsville. It was after that game that Sawyer had to do some coaching that went outside the X’s and O’s of the game. Hammond, a major cog to the Rebels’ success all year, had the home team – down 14-10 late in the game – in scoring position on the Red Foxes’ 18-yard line, when he was hit from behind and fumbled. The Red Foxes took the recovery in for a backbreaking score, and what Sawyer said to Hammond after the game shows the other side of the Rebels’ leader for the last nine seasons.

“Just like I told him and the rest of the team, it never comes down to that one play,” Sawyer said. “Jauveer knows that. He knows we wouldn’t have even been in that position without a ton of things he did throughout the year.”

Perhaps it’s that side of Sawyer that prompted Hillary to talk about the Strom Thurmond skipper’s influence on him as a young coach. Instead of pointing to the lessons Sawyer taught him about football, Hillary spoke about the relationship Sawyer builds with young men before sending them out into their chosen paths.

“It’s just so strong, the bond he builds with players,” Hillary said.

Sawyer had more specific words to the team as a whole, pointing to their status as the smallest school in Class AAA. While he didn’t want to make excuses for losing, or come off as complaining about the team’s spot in realignment, Sawyer wanted his players to know he was proud of what they accomplished in a difficult classification after competing in Class AA for the previous four seasons.

“I think one thing I wanted them to understand is that AAA is the only class in the state of South Carolina that didn’t divide its state championship,” he said, which could have made the school’s size an even bigger obstacle. “I think we’ve got a lot to be proud of, especially with it being our first year back in AAA.”

One player that has flourished under Sawyer’s tutelage is Darius Hammond. A Shrine Bowl participant, finalist for the South Carolina Mr. Football award and this year’s Aiken Standard Offensive Player of the Year, the normally soft-spoken Darius sang Sawyer’s praises. He said he felt honored to have played for Sawyer and noted the dichotomy in the coach’s style.

“I feel privileged, because he’s a hard coach but he’s easy to get along with,” Darius said. “He pushes you to maximize your potential and make you do things that other coaches probably wouldn’t.”

During the course of this highly-successful season, Sawyer became the winningest coach in Strom Thurmond history. He eclipsed Keith McAlister’s mark of 91 victories and now holds the school record with 96 wins at the helm of the Rebels’ football program, where he’s been the head coach since 2004. Sawyer has come a long way since his first job in coaching with the Batesburg-Leesville Middle School team in the early 1980s and he remains committed to Strom Thurmond despite offers to coach other places. Strom Thurmond’s renovating its stadium this offseason, and Sawyer will again face plenty of challenging personnel decisions before his team moves into its new locker room next year.

There were 19 seniors listed on the Rebels’ roster this season, and 16 of them were starters. That includes the entire offensive line, both starting running backs, the team’s leading receiver, three linebackers and two of the team’s three starting defensive backs. Trent Miller, the team’s kicker and punter this year after an All-Aiken Standard kicking performance as a junior, is also a senior.

While Sawyer recognizes the gaps he must fill, he’s confident in the players he has returning next season.

“This year, we probably took as good a hit as we have since I’ve been here to graduation,” he said. “I think we’ve got a good core coming back; it just depends on how hard they want to work.”

If the past is any indication, they’ll work hard. For Sawyer.

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