When Dan Pippin was hired as the head coach of North Augusta High School’s football team, the area program he most wanted to emulate was the one at Aiken High. The Hornets were a former state champion and a playoff fixture that dominated the region and were among the very elite teams in South Carolina – year after year.
Under Pippin’s guidance, the Yellow Jackets have become the area’s top dog and the squad that is held in high regard, from one end of the Palmetto State to the other. In what has become almost a total role reversal, now it’s Aiken that’s trying to re-establish itself and be cast in the same light as North Augusta.
“North Augusta and Coach Pippin have a very good program,” said Brian Neal, who’s in his first year as the Hornets’ head coach and the man charged with reviving the school’s proud football tradition. “It’s the program in the area to beat.”
Neal has helped breathe new life into the program and boost the team’s roster with an influx of new players. They’ve been very competitive this season, but the results haven’t been reflected in wins. At 1-8, the Hornets are on the brink of missing the playoffs for the fourth year in a row. They need to win out to be considered for a postseason berth, but it won’t be easy – especially with an 0-3 mark against Region 5-AAAA opponents.
Standing in their way tonight are the Yellow Jackets (8-1, 2-1). They’re looking to keep pace with the top teams in the region as they vie for first place.
“To me, it’s still Aiken High,” Pippin explained. “They’ve been the measuring stick for so long, it’s a big deal. It doesn’t matter what the record is, it’s still Aiken.”
North Augusta’s the latest in a line of stalwarts with great tradition to oppose the Hornets this season.
“They’re similar to Irmo and Lexington,” Neal said of squads that have gotten the best of Aiken this season. “We want to get to that level and compete with them. But it doesn’t get any easier.”
Pippin doesn’t expect anything to be easy for his squad either. He said facing Aiken is a challenge because of the multiple formations it will operate out of. He said his team is prepared to face looks ranging from the double wing, to the spread, to two tight ends and double wideouts.
“They’re difficult to defend because they run a bunch of different stuff. But it’s the end of the season, so there’s not an offense we haven’t seen,” Pippin said. “They’ve shown a tremendous amount of improvement from the Jamboree to now, especially offensively. Coach Neal is doing a good job, and they’re a quality opponent.”
Leading the way for the Hornets is Dramel Coleman. The North-South All-Star Football Game selection does a little of everything for Aiken, serving as a feature running back, kick returner and defensive stopper as a safety.
“He’s real good and has gotten better over the season,” Pippin said. “He comes down well at safety, and they have given him the ball a lot lately.”
Coleman figures to be the focal point for an Aiken squad that also features player who can make an impact at quarterback (Caleb Heath), running back (Nakeem Spann) and receiver (Stacy Toole). But the Hornets don’t possess the firepower that has allowed the Yellow Jackets to average more than 40 points per game this season.
“On offense, they’re all so good. It’s going to be extremely challenging,” Neal said. “We need to be aware where (Keyon West) is at all times. Defensively, we need to secure up the defensive front.”
West is the area’s top receiver, with 60 receptions for 754 yards and eight touchdowns. But he’s just one of four Yellow Jacket pass catchers (Dre Dunbar, Antuan Andrews, Jaleel Bryant) in the top 13 in the area in receiving yards, as quarterback Trib Reece has spread the ball around. Reece has completed 139 of 191 passes (72 percent) for 1,914 yards and 25 touchdowns – all area bests. North Augusta also has a balanced running game, with Willie McCloud and Deshawn Barnes combining to rush for more than 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns.
With all of the explosiveness on offense, the North Augusta defense often gets lost in the shuffle. Overlooking them is a mistake, as they’ve surrendered a shade more than 11 points per game. Their impact hasn’t been lost on Neal, who said “this is the best defensive front we’ve seen.”
Aiken has a tremendous challenge but has shown improvement all season. If it’s going to return to it’s prestigious past, it will need to find a way to win games like tonight’s showdown. To get to North Augusta’s level, it will need to beat it, snapping a four-game losing streak to the Yellow Jackets.
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.
Who: North Augusta (8-1, 2-1) at Aiken (1-8, 0-3)
Last time they met: North Augusta defeated Aiken 41-7 last season
When: 7:30 p.m.
Where: Hagood Stadium, Aiken
TV: ASTV, Atlantic Broadband Channel 95, and My12 starting at 7 p.m.