JOHNSTON — Jakayus Leaphart opened the second half of Friday’s high school football game against Strom Thurmond with an 88-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, giving his Gilbert squad a two-point lead. The play, following a strong first-half performance from Indians quarterback Mitch Spires, had Rebels head coach Lee Sawyer thinking his team was going to be in a shootout.

“It was the worst-case scenario, we give up the lead,” said Sawyer. “It kind of felt like we were going to have to score every possession the rest of the way.”

Sawyers’ squad did its part, posting 21-second half points. But Gilbert was shut out the rest of the way, as Strom Thurmond tightened up its defense, forced a critical turnover and rode a methodical running game to a 42-32 victory that ensures the Rebels at least a tie for the Region 5-AAA championship.

“We go in at halftime kind of rattled, like they thought it was supposed to be easy,” Sawyer said. “The guys settled down and played a great second half. The defense was more aggressive, and I was pleased with the way the offense played, especially the running game.”

The Rebels (8-1, 4-0) have had tremendous success in recent weeks throwing the ball. But on a cold night at Strom Thurmond Stadium – where temperatures dipped below 40 degrees – the aerial attack never got going. With star quarterback Jauveer Hammond only completing 4 of 10 passes for 28 yards, the Rebels had to rely on their ground and pound rushing attack to carry the offense.

“I’ve got to do a better job throwing, but we ran well,” said Hammond, who was part of three-prong attack that gouged the Indians (4-5, 1-3) for 408 yards on 48 carries. “We were just executing the gameplan to the best of our ability. We wanted to take control and take advantage of their smaller defensive line. We ran the ball behind our men and trusted the blockers.”

Hammond wasn’t called on too much in the first half, when Strom Thurmond led 21-16, with Gilbert posting 10 points in the final two minutes – including a 31-yard field goal by Zach Kilgore at the buzzer. But as the outcome of the game was question, the Rebels put the ball in the hands of their best player frequently in the second half. Hammond supplied his usual brand of hard running and finished the game with 97 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.

“He’s calm in the middle of the storm,” Sawyer said. “The players have confidence in him.”

While Hammond had some critical carries, he was only third on the team in rushing yards. Chad Gilchrist led the way with 188 yards on 15 carries. He flashed through the middle of the field and used deft cutbacks to run away from pressure and pick up extra yardage.

Delonte Bates had 16 carries for 116 yards, and was a tremendous counter punch to the speed and agility of Gilchrist. He was also the closer, finishing off five drives with touchdowns on runs of 1, 12, 7, 12 and 1 yards.

“Delonte Bates is quiet, but when he’s got the ball, you know where he is,” Hammond said.

The trio all had a hand in Strom Thurmond’s critical answer drive, where it moved the ball 57 yards in eight plays for a touchdown that regained the lead for the Rebels just three minutes after Leaphart’s kickoff return. Gilchrist had three carries for 11 yards, Hammond had three for 24 and Bates made the most of his two totes – gaining 22 yards and finding the end zone.

Strom Thurmond’s defense made the lead stand up, starting on the next possession. Spires, who finished the game 28-for-51 for 333 yards and two touchdowns, moved his team 31 yards – to the Rebels’ 36. But the defense stiffened and forced a turnover on downs when the Indians failed to convert on fourth down.

Following a Rebel punt, the Indians got the ball back on its own 28. Spires again marched them into Strom Thurmond territory and was looking for a go-ahead score. But on third-and-8 from the 42, Spires tried to force a pass to the sideline. It was batted high into the air, giving Strom Thurmond’s Tay Merriweather time to settle under the ball for a game-changing interception. The rebels marched down the field and got another touchdown from Bates to turn the game into a two-possession contest and giving them greater freedom to attack Spires.

“That was huge, it was still a ballgame, but Tay Merriweather can find the ball,” Sawyer said, praising his defense. “The pass rush got stronger and we stopped the run. It was a non-factor.”

Leaphart had two touchdowns, including another on a 25-yard reception in the second quarter. But the sophomore back who entered the game rushing for an average of more than 100 yards per game was held to just 35 yards on a dozen carries. That, and the score, made it easy for the Rebels to read Spires, taking away another of his weapons by neutralizing a bubble screen that gave them fits in the first half. While Spires connected with six different receivers – including Raymond Padgett (five receptions, 123 yards, one touchdown) – his vertical passes started falling to the ground as the game wore on and the Rebels pulled away.

Gilbert will try to bounce back next week against Swansea, Strom Thurmond will try to win the region championship outright at Midland Valley.

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.

GIL 0 16 7 0 – 23

ST 14 7 7 14 – 42



ST–Delonte Bates 1 run (Cole Fell kick good) 10:10.

ST–Bates 12 run (Fell kick good) 7:15.


GIL–Mitch Spires 47 pass to Raymond Padgett (Zach Kilgore kick good) 8:31.

ST–Jauveer Hammond 4 run (Fell kick good) 5:49.

GIL–Spires 25 pass to Jakayus Leaphart (Kilgore kick blocked) 1:43.

GIL–Kilgore 31 Field Goal 0:00.


GIL–Leaphart 88 kickoff return (Kilgore kick good) 11:44.

ST–Bates 7 run (Fell kick good) 8:28.


ST–Bates 12 run (Fell kick good) 9:36.

ST–Bates 1 run (Fell kick good) 4:51.



GIL–Jakayus Leaphart 12-35, Jalon Bright 3-12, Mitch Spires 4-11, Trey Johnson 1-9, Raymond Padgett 1-5, Nick Hendricks 1-3, Jaylin Jennings 1-0.

ST–Chad Gilchrist 15-188, Delonte Bates 16-116 5TDs, Jauveer Hammond 15-97 1TD, Deandre Ryan 1-7.


GIL–Mitch Spires 28-51-333 2TDs, 1INT, Nick Hendricks 0-1-0.

ST–Jauveer Hammond 4-10-28.


GIL–Raymond Padgett 5-123 1TD, Jalon Bright 10-65, Tristan Register 6-63, Garnett Cason 5-41, Jakayus Leaphart 1-25 1TD, Malik Bright 1-16.

ST–Tyree Stidem 2-19, Deandre Ryan 1-6, Kendall Hill 1-3.


ST–Tay Merriweather 1-0.