Rivalry showdown has familiar feeling
The scenario for football’s version of the battle of Aiken is similar to last year’s in the crosstown rivalry. Both Aiken (1-9, 0-4 Region 5-AAAA) and South Aiken will enter tonight’s game with a losing record, and South Aiken (2-8, 1-3) has a slim shot of making the playoffs. 2012’s installment of the contest concluded with South Aiken fans celebrating with the Thoroughbreds on the field at Hagood Stadium after a 28-21 South Aiken victory, an ending neither team has forgotten.
“They remember losing to them last year,” first-year Aiken head coach Brian Neal said of his team. “That’s the one thing I hear about from the players. They lost to them last year, so they want to get some respect back.”
The win marked the first for South Aiken since 2007 and the second in the last 10 meetings between the schools. It was also the first win over Aiken for South Aiken head coach Jeremy west.
For West and his team, there are more than just town bragging rights at stake. A loss would eliminate any chance the Thoroughbreds have at making the playoffs. While the odds will still be stacked against South Aiken, West has warned his players that they must do their part.
“If we don’t win, the playoffs aren’t happening for us. That’s the reality of the situation,” West said. “If we win and all the right things happen, we have a shot at least. The outcome of our game is all we can control, though.”
Aiken is also well aware of the Thoroughbreds’ playoff chances. Neal said his team has talked a little bit about the opportunity to end South Aiken’s chances.
“We’ve talked about that a little bit,” Neal said with a smile. “The fact that we have a chance to possibly knock them out of the playoffs is good for the rivalry. It gives it a bit more meaning outside the game itself.”
The Aiken players have taken note of the potential role of spoiler they can play tonight. Nakeem Spann is one of the leaders of the Aiken squad and wants the Thoroughbreds to spend playoff time at home.
“The way I look at it, if we aren’t going to the playoffs, then you’re not either,” Spann said of the chance to end South Aiken’s season. “So we’re going to try to get a win to mess up their plans just like our plans were messed up.”
Spann will be a big part of any success the Hornets will have tonight. He has rushed for 512 yards and five touchdowns on 90 carries this season, including a 102-yard performance last week against North Augusta. He also scored two touchdowns in the game. Spann, who is one of the players who will be suiting up for the Hornets for the last time, is just happy to be playing in the game, after missing the rivalry matchup last season.
“Last year I couldn’t really do much,” said Spann, who was out with an ankle injury last season. “This time around I’m hoping to get a win. I just want to go out there and play hard, knowing it’s going to be my last game. I want to show everybody that I’ve appreciated them and my time here. I’ll be going 100 percent every play until the fourth quarter.”
Neal said his team doesn’t plan to change much up from what they’ve done so far this season.
“We’re going to continue to try to run the ball,” he said. “We won’t change a whole lot of what we do on either side of the ball, we’ve just got to do it better.”
The Hornets top defensive threat will be Dramel Coleman, who also figures to be one of the backs to get significant carries. Coleman is tied for the area lead in interceptions with five on the season. He has also made big plays on the offensive side of the ball.
West said his team will have to be solid on the defensive side of the ball to prevent players like Spann and Coleman from breaking free for big plays.
“They line up in numerous formations and have that home-run threat where any play can go the distance,” West said. “We’ve got to be better at tackling and making the right reads, because we’ll get burned otherwise.”
Will Holbrook, the Thoroughbreds’ leading tackler, will play a part in stopping the Hornets’ attack. Holbrook is third among area players with 100 tackles. On the offensive side, fellow seniors Bo Baldwin and Adam Allen, who scored a rushing touchdown last year against the Hornets, have to perform well in order for South Aiken to pull out another victory over Aiken. At times this year, Baldwin has shown the arm strength and ability that made him the Aiken Standard’s top player to watch in the preseason. He has completed just over 50 percent of his passes, and he has thrown for 1,165 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“The game is really big for the (seniors),” West said. “Of course it’s a rivalry game, but no matter the outcome it will be the last game they’ll play at the stadium. They’re ready to put up a good performance.”
Eric Russell covers sports for the Aiken Standard. He graduated from USC Aiken in 2012 with a degree in communications.