Strom Thurmond hopes familiarity breeds revenge

Strom Thurmond Rebel fans Miguel Garcia, left and Zach Green cheer on the Rebel's defense during Friday night's game against the Silver Bluf Bulldogs. Staff photo by Mike Adams

The distance between Central High School in Pageland and Strom Thurmond High School in Johnston is 130 miles - about 2 hours and 20 minutes of travel time on South Carolina back roads. Still, the Class AA powers know each other as well as backyard neighbors. For the third straight season, the Eagles and the Rebels will meet in the Class AA Upper State semifinals, and Strom Thurmond is trying to find revenge after falling short the last two seasons. "It's kind of like Groundhog Day," said Rebel head coach Lee Sawyer. "It seems like every year it comes down to this. But our guys are excited to get another chance. A lot of our guys are the same, and they remember what that was like." Pulling out a victory won't be easy for the Rebels (10-2), but it's not like they've been blown out the last two years, either. In 2008, one big play cost Strom Thurmond in a 12-7 loss. Central went on to defeat Woodruff for the Upper State championship before falling one point short in a 7-6 loss to Dillon in the Class AA title game. The story wasn't much different in 2009. A late fumble, one of four in the game, cost the Rebels in the closing minutes of a 14-9 defeat. Central knocked off Abbeville 34-7 for the Upper State final and then fell to Dillon 21-20 in the championship game. "We're just going to have to step up and make a play to win the game," said Sawyer. "We can't turn it over in a game like this." This year's Central team may be the best one Sawyer's crew has seen yet. Standing at a perfect 12-0, the Region 4-AA champions are averaging 39.8 points per game while giving up 9.3. Senior quarterback Jowan Henderson is at the center of the Eagles' wishbone attack, and fellow seniors Mardu Smith and Radford Robinson are the top threats running the ball. Central has always thrived on power football, and that recipe hasn't changed this year. The Eagles, though, have been willing to go to the air at times, with senior wide receiver Jiwan Funderburk serving as the main target. "They like to run the ball, but they have spread it out," said Sawyer. "Their quarterback is really athletic and can make some plays. That just gives us two things we have to prepare for." On defense, Central is as stingy as ever. Senior Josh Covington is the star on that side of the ball. The 6-foot, 275-pound North-South All-Star selection returned an interception for a touchdown in a 40-21 win over Chesnee last week. "They've always been big and tough," said Sawyer. "Two years ago, they were huge. We have to hang in up front and not let them push us around. We need to string together some first downs and win the field position battle." Strom Thurmond isn't backing away from the challenge. Aside from back-to-back losses to Silver Bluff and Columbia in late September, the Rebels have been nearly unstoppable in 2010. They come into tonight's game having scored 30 or more points in each of the last six contests, and they're allowing fewer than 10 points per game on the other side. Running back Darius Hammond is approaching 1,000 yards on the ground (963), and quarterback Raleigh Yeldell isn't far behind with 844. Yeldell has also thrown for 1,294 yards and 11 touchdowns, passing most often to Antonio Hamilton, who has 37 catches for 526 yards. "I think we have a few more weapons this year," said Sawyer. "We have a lot of guys who can make plays, and a lot of them have another year under their belts." On defense, the Rebels feature a Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas selection in defensive lineman Octavious Brown. Jeremy Johnson leads the team with 99 tackles, and Cody Johnson has five interceptions. They shut out a powerful Williston-Elko offense and have confidence they can do the same against any opponent. A game that has traditionally been decided by the slimmest of margins, though, could come down to the third phase of the game, and Sawyer likes where his team stands on special teams. Trent Miller has connected on 52 of 55 extra-point attempts, and he's 4-for-4 on field goals. Cullen Rhoden is averaging 33.1 yards per punt, and his hang time has improved in recent weeks. "A game like this could come down to an extra point," said Sawyer. "I like our chances there. If we have a chance to kick a field goal, we can do that, too. "I feel like we match up pretty even," the coach concluded. "It's going to come down to who makes the big plays when they need them." Who: Central (12-0) at Strom Thurmond (10-2) What: Class AA Upper State semifinal When: Tonight, 7:30 p.m. Last time they played: Central defeated Strom Thurmond 14-9 in last year's Upper State semifinal. Common opponents: Gilbert - Strom Thurmond won 35-0, Central won 47-0. Lee Central - Strom Thurmond won 55-8*, Central won 47-0. * playoff game