NORTH AUGUSTA — Over the past eight seasons, the North Augusta High School football team has gone from an also ran to a perennial playoff squad, establishing itself as one of the premier programs in the area and all of South Carolina. But the architect of that transformation is no longer with the team.
After eight seasons, which included 70 wins to just 33 losses and a streak of seven consecutive playoff appearances, North Augusta head coach and athletic director Dan Pippin left the Yellow Jackets when he was offered the same position at Greenwood High School. Brian Thomas was hired to replace Pippin, and he’s the man tasked with maintaining the high standard established at North Augusta.
“Coach Pippin did great job setting the foundation,” said Thomas, who was the head coach at Northern Guilford in North Carolina last season. “I hope to carry it on and build on it.”
That won’t be easy, but being among the very best is always a challenge. Thomas’ squad will follow one of the best seasons in the history of North Augusta football.
2013 in review
Aside from a handful of other seasons, including the state championship campaign in 1989, last season was one of the best in the long history of the North Augusta football program. The Yellow Jackets posted a 12-2 record that included a pair of six-game winning streaks. They won a very competitive Region 5-AAAA championship and a pair of playoff games before falling to eventual state champion Northwestern in the semifinals of the Class AAAA Division II state playoffs.
If it weren’t for an unbelievable play in a last minute loss to Lexington, North Augusta very well could’ve been undefeated in the regular season, where they outscored opponents by an average of 41 to 13 points per game.
They dominated in all three phases and very well would’ve beaten anybody in their class outside of a juggernaut Northwestern squad.
One of the keys to the Yellow Jackets’ success was the experience of the players on last season’s squad. They were a veteran team that played with poise and precision of being together in the same system for years.
While that strength paid off in big ways it creates something of a void this season, as a number of seniors have moved on, with many going to play at the college level. But North Augusta has been through this situation several times in recent years, and it has worked as an opportunity for the new batch of rising upperclassmen to step up.
This year’s no exception and the most prominent senior on the North Augusta squad is quarterback Trib Reece. A three-year starter, Reece is coming off a superb season where he completed 227 of 330 passes for 3,083 yards and 38 touchdowns – all area bests. He was honored for those accolades, being named All-Region, All-State and to the All-Aiken Standard first team.
“I’ve got to make sure to lead by example,” said Reece, who’s one of five returning starters, but has expressed confidence in his teammates who will have to step up into more prominent roles. “We’ve just got to be patient and everything will come together. We just have to know we’re playing for North Augusta. That means we’re one of the best teams, year in and year out. I want to live up to that.”
Reece will be aided on offense by offensive lineman Victor Johnson. The physically imposing Johnson will be called on to lead an offensive line that has been one of the best in the Palmetto State in recent years, but will have four new starters this season. Even Johnson, who has committed to East Carolina, will have to learn on the job, making the switch to left tackle to protect Reece’s blindside.
The other returning starters are on defense, including nose guard Sebastian Hernandez as well as cornerbacks Mannie Ogletree and Mike Chavous. While the number of returning starters isn’t great, the experienced players are in the most critical positions – in coverage, along the line of scrimmage and at quarterback.
Even with all of the new starters, the most important new face is Thomas the new head coach. At Northern Guilford, Thomas was defensive coordinator for a team that won three consecutive state championships. In his first, and only, year as the team’s head coach, he took the Nighthawks to the title game before falling to Crest.
But prior to his stint at Northern Guilford, Thomas’ experience comes in the Palmetto State. He coached at Lancaster for 16 years followed by four more at Greenville.
“I knew it would take a special job to leave North Carolina, but I knew I’d come back to South Carolina. There’s something special about North Augusta,” said Thomas, who said one of his major goals is to continue to instill pride in fans of the program. “I want to give back to the community because they support it.”
Although Thomas doesn’t have a lot of starters coming back, he does have a good amount of players with experience on the varsity team. One of those players is George Athanaelos, who’s slated to be the new center. The former tight end offers an athletic center who can lead a versatile line, that can adjust to multiple defensive looks. The other spots along the front will be determined during practice before the season opener against Lakeside on Aug. 22.
Aside from Reece, the skill positions on offense will feature new starters. Cam Matthews is in line to become the starting tailback, inheriting a role that has seen players rush for more than 1,000 yards in each of the past three seasons. Brandon Houston also figures to get a lot of carries this season, and Rashad Byrd could also tote the rock for North Augusta when he isn’t busy running from sideline to sideline as a starting linebacker.
Although there isn’t a lot of experience among the receiving corps, there’s great athleticism. Chaz Mealer was on the squad last year and has a good rapport with Reece, while basketball star Chandler Harrison could be a revelation catching passes and Nick Champy could do damage in the slot.
Joining Byrd as top athletes on defense will be Jacob Ryan, Aaron Maddox and Timmy Butler. Ryan should be a force on the defensive line – where Johnson could see time too – and Maddox as well as Butler will man the secondary.
Games to watch
Thomas, like so many other coaches, is focused only on the first game of the season. He refused to entertain the thought of other games, saying “Lakeside, that’s it. The first one is the only one that matters. If you look ahead, you can get caught. I only focus on the next one, it’s the most important.”
While the one game at a time approach might be clichéd, it’s critical to Thomas. His outlook has become the team’s motto for this season – “Win One.”
“We’re going to try to win one day at a time, one practice at a time, one game at a time,” Thomas explained. “Everybody wants to win a state championship, but you’ve got to win one game first. That’s what we’re building on.”
The Yellow Jackets will have the chance to get off to a good start this season, potentially benefiting from playing their first four games at home. Following the opener against Lakeside, North Augusta will play host to it’s longtime area rival Midland Valley in a game that could be closer than it has been in years. Another big non-region showdown will be against former region rival Aiken High in Week Four. The week after that offers another area contest against Strom Thurmond.
The Region 5-AAAA slate starts at Lexington on Oct. 10, where North Augusta will look to avenge its lone regular-season loss from 2013. It will close the campaign at South Aiken, and in between will play games against Irmo and River Bluff – schools that have moved into the region following realignment.
Although the Yellow Jackets have a new head coach, the offense should look familiar to the style it has employed in recent seasons. That’s because longtime offensive coordinator Craig Gilstrap is returning and maintaining the scheme that allowed Reece to flourish.
“A lot will be the same,” Thomas said of the spread, shotgun formation. “We’ll keep the no huddle and try to control the tempo.”
Expect Reece to rush his offense to the line, where he’ll get the read from the sideline imploring him to run a play or run the clock and see if the defense gives anything away. Once the ball is snapped, the Jackets are just as likely to run as pass, maximizing the spread to create space to exploit.
While longtime defensive coordinator Derrick Quinn is also returning, there will be changes on defense. Beyond personnel, the most significant is a change in base package. Thomas, a defensive-minded coach, will have the Yellow Jackets employ a 4-2-5 formation.
That scheme brings an extra defensive back on to the field and adds more speed to the defense. It also can help combat the mismatches created by spread offenses. It can also help North Augusta neutralize any physical mismatches if it goes against bigger teams.
Although it will be smaller and quicker, Thomas said the formation is just as effective shutting down opposing running games as it is passing attacks.
“We can get a number of people in the box,” Thomas said of the scheme that can also create a lot of turnovers, something he’s trying to teach players during practice. “It allows us to move people and be more versatile and use a lot of fronts.”
North Augusta has a lot of experience in its kicking game. Place kicker Blake Busby returns after holding down the job in 2013. While Thomas said he’s excited about him, he wouldn’t commit to last year’s punter winning the job again this season. That would be Reece, his all-everything quarterback.
Reece will be in the mix for the job, competing with Byrd. Like his predecessor, Thomas wants to have an athletic player or somebody who’s an offensive threat as his punter. The philosophy being that teams will be less likely to employ a full rush if there’s the chance of a designed fake. With the lack of full pressure, it gives the punter more time to get off a good kick to help North Augusta control the battle for field position.
Thomas hasn’t settled on anybody to return kicks yet, but he’s got some requirements. Whoever is his punt returner must have good hands, with possessing the ball the top priority. The kickoff returners will need to be fast and have the ability to make a big play.
In spite of the changes and new faces, the expectations are – and should be – the same for North Augusta. It should benefit from lots of home games early and a region schedule that has its opponents facing as many, if not more, questions.
Expect the Yellow Jackets to make the playoffs, compete for the region championship and another double-digit win total.
“Our goal is just to get better,” said Thomas, who allowed for some larger targets that the team will shoot for every season. “We want to beat our rivals, win the conference and have the opportunity to play for the state title.
“We’ll play hard. That’s all I promise.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 15 years after graduating from Syracuse University.
vs. TL Hanna 45-3 Win
at Midland Valley 43-6 Win
at Greenbrier 45-0 Win
vs. Grovetown 56-13 Win
at Sumter 42-14 Win
vs. Strom Thurmond 27-20 Win
vs. Lexington 18-14 Loss
at White Knoll 48-22 Win
vs. South Aiken 42-6 Win
at Aiken 55-13 Win
vs. Dutch Fork 33–24 Win
vs. Laurens* 42-11 Win
vs. Beaufort* 23-10 Win
at Northwestern* 49-21 Loss
* Class AAAA playoffs
all games at 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 22 vs. Lakeside
Aug. 29 vs. Midland Valley
Sept. 12 vs. Burke County
Sept. 19 vs. Aiken
Sept. 26 at Strom Thurmond
Oct. 3 at Ridge View
Oct. 10 at Lexington^
Oct. 17 vs. White Knoll^
Oct. 24 at River Bluff^
Oct. 31 vs. Irmo^
Nov. 7 at South Aiken^
^ Region 5-AAAA opponents
SEASON PREVIEW SCHEDULE
• Today: North Augusta
• Tuesday: Strom Thurmond
• Wednesday: Fox Creek
• Thursday: South Aiken
• Friday: Williston-Elko
• Saturday: Wagener-Salley
• Aug. 11: Silver Bluff
• Aug. 12: Aiken
• Aug. 13: Ridge Spring-Monetta
• Aug. 14: Midland Valley
Staff Photo by Scott Rodgers Chaz Mealer hauls in a catch during a drill at the first North Augusta High School football practice on Friday morning.×
Staff Photo by Scott Rodgers Brian Thomas, North Augusta High School's head football coach, observes players running through a drill on Friday morning.×
Staff Photo by Scott Rodgers North Augusta quarterback Trib Reece prepares to pass during a drill at Friday morning's practice.×
Staff Photo by Scott Rodgers North Augusta High School head football coach Brian Thomas offers words of encouragement to his players during a drill.×
Staff Photo by Scott Rodgers North Augusta quarterback Trib Reece hands off to running back Cam Matthews on Friday morning.×