Olajuwon Paige has a tall task in front of him. The former Aiken High football star is back at his alma mater as head coach. He was hired this summer to take over the program.
The late hire, however, means he and the Hornets had to hit the ground running. So far, Paige likes what he's seen from his team heading into the 2019 season.
"The biggest thing that I'm seeing is guys are working hard," Paige said. "I think they're buying in. We've got new core values and all those types of things that they probably didn't have before, but we're living by our core values. That's what I'm seeing these guys are really adjusting to now."
Aiken went 1-8 last year, missing out on the playoffs for a second consecutive year. Paige made it clear getting back to the postseason this year is the main objective.
"I want these guys to have fun. I want these guys to have the experience of their senior year at least making the playoffs," he said. "Making the playoffs is a big deal for these kids because they haven't been there in a while."
With Paige and his coaching staff joining Aiken so late in the summer, there won't likely be too many big changes on the offense or defensive side. Paige described the 'new' style as similar to what the Hornets had been doing but with a twist.
"I want us to play fast," Paige said. "... The style I'm bringing is some fun and excitement. We're going to have a lot of speed on the field."
Aiken's passing game was clicking last year, finishing the season with 2,233 yards and 24 touchdowns through the air. A key group of the guys responsible for that, including quarterback Kory Wallace, graduated.
The Hornets do still have some of the firepower from that offense. Charvis Jones, the team's leading receiver, is back and could have an impact at multiple positions.
One thing Paige will certainly try to do is boost the run game. The Hornets ran for 758 yards and six touchdowns as a team last season. Brylan Jones is the leading returning rusher.
On the defensive side, the Hornets will rely on Talik Jones for both production and leadership. Jones will line up at defensive end. He was among the Hornets with the most tackles in 2018. Jones finished last season with 51 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.
The defensive unit will also be filled with fresh faces after several key departures from last year's team.
Aiken starts the season with a pair of tough tests against Class AAA teams. The team will travel to Chester to take on the defending Class AAA state champions. That's followed by a matchup with Strom Thurmond.
Paige will get to face his former team, Greenwood, in Week 2. His most recent job was as an assistant with the Eagles under Dan Pippin.
The region schedule kicks off with a rivalry game against South Aiken on Oct. 4.