Prior to the season, tonight’s Region 5-AAAA opener between the high school football teams from North Augusta and Lexington didn’t seem like it would be a pivotal game in the league’s hierarchy.


The Yellow Jackets came into the 2013 campaign as one of the favorites to win the region – and more. All they’ve done is further bolster those expectations with a 6-0 start to the season, winning most of their games by lopsided scores.


The Wildcats, on the other hand, didn’t have nearly as much fanfare. Part of that was the result of a disappointing 3-8 season a year ago – which included a 44-6 loss to North Augusta – when they failed to make the playoffs. The opening of River Bluff High School in Lexington County cut down on their enrollment and could’ve affected the football program.


Another factor tamping down expectations was uncertainty about the coaching situation. Head coach Scott Earley left suddenly, and it wasn’t easy finding his replacement. Ultimately, former Dreher head coach Josh Stepp was hired to take over, but in spite of his success at Class AAA, how he would fare in Lexington was unknown.


Stepp’s Wildcats have been one of the biggest surprises this season, opening the year with a 5-1 record. Lexington’s only loss was against undefeated Spring Valley. Other than that game, the Wildcats have found one way or another to notch victories, including a 30-27 win over Blythewood, a 36-28 triumph over traditional power Irmo – when Stepp wasn’t permitted on the sidelines because of an incident in a junior varsity game – and even a 34-27 victory over Cooper City that followed a trip to Florida.


“Stepp has done a great job,” said Dan Pippin, North Augusta’s head coach. “They’re winning the close games that they didn’t last year. He’s been a calming influence and should be fun to compete against.”


Lexington’s coming off a 48-28 win over Lugoff-Elgin last week, giving it a full head of steam as it heads to North Augusta tonight for the 7:30 p.m. showdown with the Yellow Jackets in their homecoming game.


“It’s a big game, but it’s going to be a tough matchu., North Augusta is a great football team,” said Stepp, who deferred credit to the Wildcats’ great start to the players. “The kids have done a great job; all the credit goes to them. We’ve gotten better, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”


One player who has led the way for the Wildcats is senior quarterback Will Hunter. A four-year starter, Hunter has completed 100 of 157 passes for 1,374 yards and 13 touchdowns, while only being picked off four times.


“Will Hunter is a good quarterback, a special quarterback,” Pippin said. “He’ll beat you with his arm.”


Hunter is also one of the Wildcats’ top rushers and has run for four touchdowns this season. He’s best used his athleticism to extend plays and slide away from pressure. He’s got four receivers with more than 200 yards gained through the air. Although he’ll spread the ball around, his favorite target has been Keelo Norris, who has 35 receptions for 495 yards and five touchdowns.


“Keelo Norris has stepped up at receiver, but it starts with Will Hunter. He’s a great leader,” Stepp said of his offense, which primarily works out of the spread. “It’s been a team effort each week.”


Lexington’s leading rusher is Garvin Jackson, who has gained 509 yards and scored six touchdowns on 87 carries. He’s taken over the role of top back from Grayson Chumley. While Chumley has used his power running in spots to gain more than 100 yards this season, his primary responsibilities have been as the leader of the defense.


Described as the quarterback of the defense, Chumley has a team-best 40 solo tackles from his inside linebacker position. He’ll have his hands full trying to react to the Yellow Jackets’ fast-paced offense.


Utilizing the zone read out of the spread, North Augusta is terrific at dictating pace and finding soft spots in opposing defenses. It’s led by quarterback Trib Reece, the leading passer in the Aiken area with 1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns. Like Hunter, Reece spreads the ball around to four receivers with more than 200 yards gained. Also like Hunter, he’s got a top target in the form of Keyon West, who has 34 receptions for 480 yards and three touchdowns this season.


“They’ve got big-play capability,” Stepp said of the Yellow Jackets, who have two running backs – Willie McCloud and Dashawn Barnes – that have run for more than 1,100 yards and 17 touchdowns behind a physical and athletic offensive line. “I’m excited. We get to play a team that’s in the top five in the state.”


In spite of preseason expectations – or lack of them – the game is actually a big deal. Both teams are looking to get off to a good start in their region debuts. More importantly, they’re looking to take control of the region rankings after a successful start to the season.


“It would be huge to control our destiny,” Stepp said.


Pippin agreed, saying this is the first step in a critical juncture.


“It’s a big deal, winning the region. We’ve only done it one time since 1993,” Pippin said of the importance of tonight’s game, which will be North Augusta’s homecoming. “When you get into region, everything gets magnified.”


Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.


WEEK SEVEN


Who: Lexington (5-1) at North Augusta (6-0)


Last time they met: North Augusta defeated Lexington 44-6 last season


When: 7:30 p.m.


Where: Jackets Nest, North Augusta


TV: ASTV, Atlantic Broadband Channel 95, and My12 starting at 7 p.m.