In South Carolina high school football, practicing on Thanksgiving requires one thing above all else: winning.
That's exactly what Strom Thurmond (11-1) is trying to do for the third straight year by advancing to the Class AAA, Upper State final. But first the Region 5-AAA champion Rebels will have to knock off Region 7-AAA No. 2 seed Myrtle Beach (8-4).
Strom Thurmond head coach Lee Sawyer said that making it even this far has exceeded the expectations he had for a team that came into the year with 15 holes left by graduating seniors that either started or rotated into first-team slots.
“I told them a few weeks ago, if we could win the region, that would be probably the most special region we've won here since I've been here,” he said. “Much less practicing on Thanksgiving. That was not even a thought at that point. We were just focusing on that region part. If these guys were to do it (tonight) and to get to that point for the third year in a row, it would definitely be something that I'd be extremely proud of.”
To accomplish that feat, the Rebels will have to contend with a formidable passing attack predicated on shorter routes.
Because of that, quarterback Drayton Arnold was able to throw for 265 passing yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions in last week's win over Crestwood, despite only completing 12 of 28 passes.
His main target is Kelton Greene, who caught six passes for 155 yards in the victory.
“I mean he's caught deep balls, but he's probably better at putting his foot in the ground at about 8 yards and kind of running away from that underneath coverage,” Sawyer said, adding that Greene – listed at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds – is proficient at moving the chains with shorter catches and broken tackles.
The Seahawks are also capable on the ground, led by 5-10, 182-pound running back Brandon Sinclair. The sophomore ran for 79 yards and a touchdown last week and has run for more than 1,700 yards and 18 touchdowns on the year.
Just like last week, the Strom Thurmond offense will be up against a defense capable of getting into the backfield. While Myrtle Beach doesn't have quite the numbers North Myrtle Beach had in sacks and tackles for loss, the Seahawks still have three players with as many or more sacks than the four that the Rebels' leader, Chad Stevens, has.
Leading that effort is Cordell Brown. The senior defensive end has 18 tackles for loss and 7½ sacks on the season. Teammate Shyquan McCray isn't far behind with 17 stops for loss and 5½ sacks.
Sawyer said countering the Myrtle Beach pressure will be a two-fold effort.
“We've got to establish our running game first and kind of focus more on quick throws,” he said. “We've got to pop it out there a little quicker ... to try to spread them out there a little bit.”
Regardless of the result tonight, a talented group of Rebel seniors that includes quarterback Jauveer Hammond – who has rushed for more than 1,200 yards while passing for more than 1,400 – and linebacker Kenyatta Dunbar – the team's leader in tackles with 84 – could be facing their last game in Johnston. They “caught a break” with the Seahawks' upset of Crestwood, but that final time under the home lights is looming with a road victory by Marlboro County over Socastee required for another home game – if the Rebels advance.
“We kind of talked about it last week a little bit,” Sawyer said. “You just talk about cherishing the last times here.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.
At a glance
WHAT: Class AAA playoffs – third round
WHO: Strom Thurmond (11-1) vs. Myrtle Beach (8-4)
WHERE: Strom Thurmond High School, Johnston
WHEN: Tonight, 7:30 p.m.
LAST MEETING: Myrtle Beach won 30-6 in the 2006 Class AAA playoffs.
Staff photo by Bill Bengtson Strom Thurmond quarterback Jauveer Hammond battled for more than 140 yards on the ground last week against North Myrtle Beach.×
Staff photo by Bill Bengtson Strom Thurmond quarterback Jauveer Hammond, shown celebrating his 5-yard touchdown run against North Myrtle Beach last week, has been a part of 23 touchdowns this season.×