North Augusta Jackets welcome Eagles to nest
The North Augusta High School football team will play host to another postseason game tonight, when they welcome Beaufort to the Jackets Nest for the second round of the Class AAAA, Division II playoffs. The Yellow Jackets (11-1) are coming off a 42-11 win over Laurens, where they were able to maximize both their big-play ability and a home-field advantage in the lopsided victory.
They’ll look to repeat that winning formula against the Eagles (9-3), who are coming off 23-15 win over Blythewood in the first round of the playoffs. It won’t be easy, as Beaufort will look to dominate the ball and slow the game down with its powerful running game.
“They’re going to try and control the football and limit the number of snaps,” said Dan Pippin, North Augusta’s head coach.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re playing us or somebody else. That’s their style.”
In this era of spread formations and read-option offenses, the Eagles are something of a throwback. They primarily run the veer, using split-back schemes. Their top weapon is running back Eric Blakely. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound senior has rushed for 1,503 yards and 18 touchdowns on 209 carries (an average of more than 7 yards per attempt) this season.
Blakely’s wing man is Jeffrey Tookes. Just a sophomore, the 5-8, 135-pound Tookes has provided balance in the running game with 169 carries for 831 yards and four touchdowns this season. Even quarterback Ben Vaigneur is a threat to run, picking up 240 yards and five touchdowns this season.
“Offensively, they’re very good,” said Pippin, who warned his defenders will have to read their keys and let those lead them to the ball. “They run the trap, power, counter and sweep. They’re like Dutch Fork, a power-running team with a lot of fast kids.”
Pippin said running behind a solid and sizeable offensive line is critical for Beaufort. The offensive line is aided by the blocking and all-around presence of tight end Stephen Baggett. The 6-5, 225-pound senior is like an extra tackle at times but was also the Eagles’ top receiver with 24 catches this season for 483 yards and seven touchdowns. For all of his contributions, Baggett was selected to play in the North-South All-Star Football Game, and he figures to be a pivotal performer if Beaufort’s going to upset the Yellow Jackets.
“They’re going to be a problem for North Augusta,” Blythewood coach Dan Morgan said to the Island Packet. “The fact that they can control the clock as well as they do is one of the biggest things, and one of the best ways to stop a throwing team like us and North Augusta. Shorten that game and get a little more sense of urgency, a lot of pressure on every series that you’ve got to get the ball down the field.”
While Pippin is aware of the Eagles’ strengths, he said he was more focused on his squad’s execution. If the Yellow Jackets do what they’ve done for the most part this season and play at the high level that’s been key to their current five-game winning streak, it won’t matter how many snaps they have on offense.
“We’re going to do what we do, no matter what they try to dictate the tempo of the game,” Pippin said. “Our tempo is good.”
They’re a quick-strike team and are almost always the team dictating tempo. The offense, led by junior quarterback Trib Reece doesn’t need to be on the field long to score. As the triggerman in the zone-read offense, Reece has completed 189 of 264 passes this season for 2,565 yards and 33 touchdowns. Not only does he have a very impressive 71 percent completion rate – a better than 13 yards per completion – but he’s only thrown five interceptions all season. That’s very impressive for a quarterback who throws as often as Reece does and is always rushing to the line of scrimmage.
Reece benefits from having a talented and deep group of receivers. They’re led by Keyon West, who’s coming off an eight-catch, 145-yard performance against Laurens that included two spectacular touchdowns. That boosted his season total to more than 1,000 yards receiving – leaving him with 1,059 on 79 receptions and 14 touchdowns.
Dre Dunbar (44 receptions, 602 yards, 10 touchdowns), Jaleel Bryant (24 receptions, 424 yards, five touchdowns) and Antuan Andrews (27 receptions, 352 yards, five touchdowns) round out Reece’s top targets. But what makes the Yellow Jackets so tough to stop on offense is their balance and versatility. They’re one of the top rushing teams in the Aiken area, led by Willie McCloud’s 1,169 yards and 16 touchdowns.
McCloud has shared carries with Dashawn Barnes (129 carries, 745 yards, nine touchdowns) all season, with Ronald Williams emerging as the top short-distance runner. But Williams’ primary duties are at linebacker (where’s he’s tied for the team lead in tackles with Jordan Blocker at 105 stops) and Barnes was hurt last week and sat out the second half, leaving only McCloud to run out the clock. With some strong inside blocking from the offensive line he did a tremendous job, even with Laurens keying on him, and will be the lead back again tonight. If Barnes’ leg injury prevents him from playing, Pippin said Cam Matthews will pick up the slack after leading the JV squad.
Beaufort isn’t an easy team to run against, with a defensive front anchored by Kentrell Seabrook. The North-South selection has 62 tackles this season – eight for loss – and three sacks.
TJ Watts is the Eagles’ top tackler with 141 stops, including 10 for a loss, and Jordan Clegg mans the secondary with a team-best four interceptions for a team that has recorded a dozen picks. They’re surrendering 19 points per game this season and recorded two shutouts, one against Aiken High. They’ll have their hands full trying to contain the Yellow Jackets and will have to do it in a hostile environment.
This might be the last chance for North Augusta fans to cheer their team at home this season. Barring a loss, as well as a huge upset in the Northwestern-York game, the Yellow Jackets will be on the road next week.
“We have a distinct home-field advantage,” said Pippin, who pointed to large crowds, pregame Harley Davidson’s circling the field and the state of the art videoboard as difference makers. “The kids feed off that and we’re happy to create that here. It makes things special.”
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.
What: Class AAAA, Division II second-round playoff game
Who: Beaufort (9-3) at North Augusta (11-1)
Where: Jackets Nest, North Augusta
When: 7:30 p.m.
Last time they played: North Augusta defeated Beaufort 34-13 in the 1961 playoffs