Silver Bluff and Strom Thurmond are a natural fit for a non-region series, one that is set to continue tonight in Johnston.
The Bulldogs play in Class AA, with the Rebels bouncing between that and Class AAA, which means the schools are close enough in size to be consistently competitive. On top of that, both schools have recent state championships to their name, with Silver Bluff winning Class AA titles in 2000 and 2001 and Strom Thurmond taking Class AAA in 2005.
“I think it's always just been a great matchup, ever since I've been here,” said Strom Thurmond head coach Lee Sawyer, who took the reins in 2004. “I think it's made both teams better in their respective regions.”
Sawyer and Silver Bluff head coach Al Lown kicked the rivalry back off in Sawyer's first year, and the game has often been the last non-region contest. Regardless of when the game is played, Lown said he views it as a measuring stick for his program because of the quality on the other sideline.
“It's been a great test for us,” he said. “It's a great chance for us to find out what we've got to do to get better.”
If that's the case, the last two seasons have shown the Bulldogs plenty of areas that needed improvement. In 2011, the Rebels won 52-7 – Silver Bluff's worst loss of the year – and Strom Thurmond collected a 42-14 win a year ago, the only regular-season defeat for the Bulldogs.
Before that, the teams weren't separated by more than two scores in seven meetings, including five games where the final margin was eight points or less. In all, Strom Thurmond is 7-2 in the series' recent iteration.
“Most years, it's been a seven-point game or less. The last two years have been a little out of whack,” Sawyer said. “I think it's been exciting games. It's been well-played games, and I think it's made both programs better in their region play.”
Something has been working for the two programs in the last nine years, as they've lost a combined nine region games over that span.
This year's matchup figures to be another pairing of two of the area's most talented squads that are expected to contend for region titles. Each team went to the Lower State finals in its respective division last year, and key pieces return for both.
For Strom Thurmond, that conversation begins with quarterback Jauveer Hammond. Silver Bluff head coach Al Lown said that stopping the read-option offense he leads is somewhat off the table; success is about limiting the damage and avoiding costly errors.
“It's pick your poison,” Lown said. “Hammond's so dynamic. ... They've got a lot of options in their offense.”
Sawyer pointed to his team's no-huddle offensive style as the biggest key to the Rebels' success and the most significant advantage they'll have over the Bulldogs' defense. He said the athletic unit, led up front by Gyasi Yeldell, would get some negative-yardage plays but could ultimately be “worn down.”
“This is no secret,” Sawyer said. “They've got some great players; they've also got a lot of people going both ways.”
In the starting units alone, there are five Bulldogs listed playing both offense and defense, not including players that might come in to help out in the defensive backfield. Bulldog starting quarterback Jaylen Lawrence was an All-Aiken Standard first team defensive back a year ago and figures to be one of the first players Lown and his staff would turn to for pass coverage support.
On the flip side of the ball, Lawrence and the Bulldogs' Wing-T offense could have a strategic advantage over the Rebels' inexperienced defense. With only four returning starters on that side of the ball, very few of Sawyer's defenders have significant experience against the misdirection-based attack.
In past years, odds were they would have seen at least a similar system in the four weeks leading up to the game. Not this year.
“Now of course we haven't seen it at all, and it's pretty much impossible to simulate in practice,” Sawyer said. “Those backs don't need much, just a little crack, and they're in the secondary.”
Shaquez Wright, Myles Corbitt and RJ Stallings each had more than 600 yards and six touchdowns last year, and all three are back as the key weapons of the Bulldogs' formation. Wright was the leader of the bunch in 2012 with more than 1,200 yards and 14 scores.
On top of that, Lown was most excited about his offensive line, where Yeldell, Avery Corbett, Alex Graham and James Jacks all return as starters.
“We should be fairly decent on offense,” Lown said. “It's probably the best offensive line we've had since the state championship years.”
Against such an experienced team overall, Sawyer said he was looking for his team to show the same early drive last year's Rebels showed in their opener against Eastern Christian Academy. While a different scenario, he's looking for the same benchmarks out of this year's group against the Bulldogs.
“I'm just looking to see if they'll compete,” Sawyer said. “These inexperienced guys, still, I want to see some competition, minimize some mistakes. ... When those things do happen, try to overcome them.”
Like Sawyer, Lown said the most important takeaway from tonight's game will be what it shows him about his team's mental makeup.
“I expect to go up there and play well,” he said. “This is a test, moreso than anything else, about ourselves. We've got to find out how much gas we've got in the tank.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.