It would have been natural for the Thomas Heyward Academy football team to ease off the gas at some point this season, lulled into a place of contentment and comfort by clobbering opponents by an average of 35 points per game.
But not this group.
“They’ve been hungry all year,” Shuford said. “We’ve had to bring them back down to earth on some Mondays after a big win, but other than that, they’ve been getting after it. They knew what the goal was going into the season, and they’ve been building towards it.”
The Rebels have been fueled by the memory of last year’s SCISA 1A semifinal loss to Pee Dee Academy, the same team they’ll face for the state championship at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Benedict College in Columbia.
Thomas Heyward squandered a 12-point halftime deficit in a 42-34 home loss to Pee Dee in last year’s semifinals, snapping an eight-game winning streak. The Rebels have been ready for a rematch ever since, and they were supposed to get one during the regular season, but it was wiped out by Hurricane Florence.
Taking that game off the schedule meant the Rebels were hardly tested in the regular season. Their closest game was a 23-14 win at Colleton Prep on Aug. 31 in which the outcome was never really in doubt, and they won seven straight games by at least 35 points before last week’s 52-30 win over Carolina Academy in the semifinals.
The Eagles have been nearly as dominant. They lost their season opener, 32-25 in overtime at Lee Academy, but have won nine straight since. They are the rare SCISA team that passes more than it runs, as Jake Lane has thrown for 2,731 yards and 32 touchdowns in just nine games and five players have at least 350 receiving yards.
“The quarterback is the real deal,” Shuford said. “He puts it where he wants it and their receivers can catch and run.”
It was that passing game that led Pee Dee back in the second half of last year’s meeting, but Shuford believes this year’s secondary is more athletic, which will allow the Rebels to better cover the Eagles’ army of receivers.
The Rebels have their own arsenal on offense. Although leading rusher JR Patterson remains sidelined, the versatile Trey Pusha is back to full strength and is one of three healthy backs who have rolled up over 600 rushing yards apiece behind a dominant offensive line.
Shuford has some question marks going into the game, but not about his team’s motivation, which hasn’t wavered all year.
“We’re definitely gonna show up Saturday,” he said, “and give it all we’ve got.”
Photo by Jim Killian Photography
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