NORTH AUGUSTA — This might sound familiar. The North Augusta High School football team is playing its rivals from Dutch Fork with a share of the Region 5-AAAA title on the line.
That was the case when the two Palmetto State powers battled last season and will be true when they meet again in tonight’s finale to the regular season.
A year ago, the Silver Foxes took an early lead and were able to stave off a furious Yellow Jacket comeback for a 28-21 victory. That gave them the region title and a top seed in the playoffs, allowing them to make it to the Class AAAA, Division I title game. North Augusta had to go on the road in the second round of the playoffs where it narrowly lost to Greenwood, the Class AAAA, Division II state champs.
Another win by Dutch Fork (8-2, 4-0) clinches the region outright. Should North Augusta (9-1, 3-1) win, it would force a tie for first with Dutch Fork and possibly Lexington. In the case of a two-way tie between the Yellow Jackets and Silver Foxes, North Augusta would hold the tiebreaker with the head-to-head win. Should it be a three-way tie with the Wildcats – who play White Knoll tonight – North Augusta head coach Dan Pippin said his team would again prevail as the region’s No. 1 seed.
“We would win the tiebreakers if it’s a three-way tie for AAAA,” said Pippin, who pointed out the importance of winning the game and that top spot since a loss to Dutch Fork would drop the Yellow Jackets into third place. “With a win, we’d be at home and a top-four seed. If we lose, we’re on the road (to start the playoffs), and that makes a big difference.”
As complicated as that might seem, it might be easier than finding a way to beat Dutch Fork. The Silver Foxes are an offensive powerhouse, averaging more than 45 points per game.
“This is the best team we’ve played,” Pippin said. “They’re one of the top teams in AAAA football.”
They suffered back-to-back losses earlier this season, but one of those setbacks was to undefeated Goose Creek and the other was to traditional rival Irmo. An overriding factor in those games was the absence of running back Matt Colburn. The player who has rushed for 1,461 and 26 touchdowns on 197 carries this season was injured early in the Goose Creek contest and sat out the following game to Irmo, a game that wasn’t determined until double overtime. Since then, Colburn has returned, and the Silver Foxes haven’t been defeated.
“They were ahead when he got hurt vs. Goose Creek,” Pippin said. “He’s a great running back with great feet and reads blocks well, and the offensive line is huge.”
Colburn is also a threat to catch passes out of the backfield. He’s made 16 receptions for 261 yards and two touchdowns and makes Dutch Fork that much more difficult to defend out of its spread formation. Colburn is a safety valve for prolific quarterback Derek Olenchuk. The senior starter, who also serves as the team’s punter, has had a monster season. Olenchuk has completed 169 of 229 passes for 2,455 yards and 29 touchdowns, while only being picked off five times. His top targets are receiver Deion Frasier (58 receptions, 791 yards, nine touchdowns) and tight end Austin Ruger (38 receptions, 653 yards, six touchdowns).
As Pippin noted, the strength of the team is its offensive line. The five up front – including right tackle Josh Hutchinson (6-7, 270 pounds) a North-South selection – have opened the holes for Colburn to exploit and only allowed Olenchuk to be sacked six times all season. That’s why Pippin was adamant that the line that has the better game tonight will prevail.
“It’s very basic; last year we got whipped up front on the offensive line,” Pippin reflected. “It comes down to the line of scrimmage. Whoever controls the line of scrimmage will win the game.”
Fortunately for North Augusta, they have a formidable line – on offense and defense. Even without Shrine Bowl selection Jake Whitley, out with a knee injury, the Yellow Jackets’ offensive line is strong and athletic. Patrick Lynn is part of a group that has filled in admirably for Whitley and has been aided by guard Maurice Williams, a North-South pick.
That group has allowed skill players like Keyon West to have standout seasons. West is the area’s top receiver, with 64 receptions for 787 yards and 10 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 150 of 209 passes for 2,034 yards and 28 touchdowns and only four interceptions – all area bests.
North Augusta also has a balanced running game, with Willie McCloud and Deshawn Barnes combining to rush for more than 1,700 yards and 22 touchdowns.
They’ll look to exploit a Dutch Fork defense that’s allowed more than 23 points per game. In spite of the presence of standouts like linebacker Lane Ecton and North-South defensive tackle Omar Staley, the Silver Foxes have been vulnerable to big plays – and that’s one of the Yellow Jackets’ specialties. It all figures to make for a compelling contest with so much to be determined by the outcome.
“This is two years in a row the region championship comes down to the last game; you can’t ask for anything better than that,” Pippin said. “I’m proud of where our program is. It’s good to be here.”
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: Dutch Fork (8-2, 4-0) at North Augusta (9-1, 3-1)
Last time they met: Dutch Fork defeated North Augusta 28-21 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.