From the preseason right up through the state semifinals, Thomas Heyward’s football team hasn’t talked about defending its SCISA 1A state title.
The past was the past. They were only looking ahead.
Now they can talk about it. The Rebels have made it back to the championship game, where they’ll face region rival Bethesda Academy in a rematch at 1 p.m. Saturday at Benedict College in Columbia.
“We really didn’t talk about defending our title,” THA coach Nic Shuford said. “That was kind of the big key this year, not looking backwards and thinking about last year’s team. This is a new team with new goals, and we’re really trying to create our own identity.”
That identity was reestablished in the three games since a 28-16 loss at Bethesda derailed the Rebels’ region title hopes. The Rebels fell behind early in that game and got away from their game plan, mostly abandoning the run as the offense sputtered.
“I probably panicked a little bit and went to the air a little more than we need to early on,” Shuford said. “I think we could have had some success and gotten back in that ballgame if we’d stuck to the ground game a little bit more.”
That’s exactly what they’ve done since the setback in Savannah. Bruzza Pusha, JR Patterson, and John Clark Tilton have each averaged more than 110 rushing yards over the past three contests as the Rebels have outscored those opponents 112-19.
“We’ve been able to get the running game going here the last three or four weeks, and it all starts with our bigs up front,” Shuford said. “Those guys get after it. They’re big mean goons, and they just enjoy doing what they do.”
Forgotten in the result of the first meeting is the fact that THA held the Blazers to a season-low 28 points — 20.9 points below their season average and the first time since the season-opener they were held under 40.
Shuford hopes his defense can replicate that performance against an offense loaded with talent, including 2,000-yard rusher Jaden Wright, quarterback Antjuan McKay (1,891 yards, 20 TDs, 2 INTs), and three players with more than 400 receiving yards.
“They’ve got a ton of weapons and they spread them out, so we’ve just got to play disciplined,” Shuford said. “We’ve done a great job of swarming to the ball of late. These guys have been all over the field making plays.”
If Shuford learned anything from the regular-season loss to the Blazers it’s this — if the Rebels fall short of a second consecutive title Saturday, it will be because Bethesda beat them at their own game.
“I think that’s the biggest thing I learned from it — do what we do,” Shuford said. “It doesn’t really matter who we’re playing, we’ve just got to stick to doing what we do and we’ll be all right.”