August 25, 1988 – a day the football rivalry between Ridge Spring-Monetta and Wagener-Salley high schools changed forever.
That Thursday evening, the teams' decades-old rivalry was played for the first time as the "Aiken County Class A Classic", with a traveling trophy joining the usual bragging rights as the yearlong spoils of victory. RS-M was the first to bring home the trophy, as Phil Strickland's Trojans downed Robbie Randall's mistake-prone War Eagles 23-6 in the season opener.
Friday's installment of the rivalry will join that 1988 clash in the rivalry's history.
Wagener-Salley can leave the trophy locked up tight, because this time the teams are playing for a different piece of hardware – the Class A Upper State championship.
The top-ranked War Eagles (12-0) are playing in their first state semifinal since 1986, when they dropped a 14-13 heartbreaker at home to Timmonsville in the Lower State final. Just as painful was their 1978 Lower State title appearance, a 26-24 home loss in double overtime to Williston-Elko.
This year's Wagener-Salley team has played with poise, confidence and aggression, outscoring opponents by 40 points per game. The War Eagles have shown plenty of maturity during this stretch, giving head coach Willie Fox reason to believe they can put last week's revenge victory over four-time defending Upper State champs Lamar behind them. He wrote "Lamar" on the whiteboard before Monday's practice, then wiped it clean once they had finished watching film.
"I said, 'Guys, it's over,'" he said. "As big of a win as it was, how we do this week is gonna depend on how well we transition from winning that game to being able to focus and get down to business. We've done a pretty good job of it. ... That's one thing that this group has done a much better job of. They transition, and they focus on the task at hand a lot better than we've done in the past. They've been good."
The eighth-ranked Trojans (9-4) are coming into their fourth Upper State championship in the last seven years – the previous three were losses, one to Hunter-Kinard-Tyler and two to Lamar – with plenty of confidence, too. They've won five straight games since their Oct. 18 loss at Wagener-Salley, and head coach Brian Smith feels his team turned a corner during last week's triple-overtime win at Blackville-Hilda.
"Blackville was the first time we've had a real defensive struggle, a defensive ballgame, a defensive battle. I felt like we showed we could win defensively," he said. "... That was the first game we had to win where it was tight the whole game. We had to make a couple stops in the red zone on them, and we had to make the stops – three overtimes, and we stopped all three two-point conversions. That was big for us."
A confident defense is necessary against a Wagener-Salley offense that, behind a powerful offensive line, can move the ball with power and speed all game long with a full stable of backs. The War Eagles are just as imposing on the defensive front, meaning the Trojans will have to be up to the task on both lines if they want a spot in the Class A title game.
"We've got to play better up front than we did on both sides of the ball last time. I think that's a big key," said Smith. "They're a big, physical football team, and they're really good at what they do. We've got to play a little better on the offensive and defensive lines. ... You can't give them a short field. You cannot give them the big play, and that was our first half against them. It was way too many big plays and a couple turnovers."
That is something that needs to be different from that previous meeting, which Wagener-Salley won 40-6, and there will be something else different, too – RS-M quarterback Remedee Leaphart missed that game due to injury but is back in control of the offense. Fox said he and his team are expecting a completely different game plan this time around, though they're plenty aware of who they need to stop.
"We've got to stop Collier Sullivan from running the ball up the middle, and we can't let the Leaphart kid beat us deep," Fox said. "If we can do those two things then we're gonna be fine on defense, and we've just got to execute offensively. We've played a lot of football games this year. We've just got to go play another one and win this one."
Emotions will run high Friday night, as they do any time two rivals line it up. This time, though, has history and a new trophy on the line – meaning it's that much more important for the players to set aside everything else, execute their game plan and simply be the better football team.
"As I've told these guys, your goal every year – if you're practicing on Thanksgiving, all of your football dreams are right there for you to get," Smith said. "That's kind of the threshold you want to achieve every year. As Bobby Knight said, you want to get in position to be in position. Well, we're in position to be in position. Our dreams and goals are right there in front of us, and they are for the other 19 teams in the state. We just want to be one of the 10 teams that advances."