Homecoming festivities are often the big highlight on a regular season schedule. At Strom Thurmond this season, it's almost become an afterthought.
The Rebels will play host to Silver Bluff this week, and the nonregion showdown between the two Class AA powers has grown beyond the scheduled homecoming festivities into what some are calling a playoff-like atmosphere.
North Augusta head coach Dan Pippin, whose team faced Silver Bluff in the Aiken County Jamboree and Strom Thurmond two weeks ago, is among those who see the matchup as a possible preview to something bigger later this season.
"I tell you what, I wouldn't be surprised to see Strom Thurmond and Silver Bluff play each other in the state finals," Pippin said after his team played the Rebels. "They're both two good teams."
The teams are also led by friends. Strom Thurmond coach Lee Sawyer and Silver Bluff's Al Lown are no strangers to the series or each other.
"Coach Sawyer and I are good friends," Lown said. "That means he wants to beat me, and I want to beat him."
The camaraderie is mutual.
"Coach Lown, he's probably the best friend I have in coaching," Sawyer said. "I can't say I like playing them. But it's always fun."
The series between the two schools has produced annual nail-biters for fans and headaches for coaches.
The 11 previous meetings have seen six wins for Strom Thurmond and five for Silver Bluff. Six of the games have been decided by single digits and, since 1991, the scoring difference is separated by four points, with Strom Thurmond leading 135-131.
"It's always a playoff-type atmosphere," Sawyer said. "Games like that end up helping both teams in the long run. That's why we play them."
Strom Thurmond, which dropped from Class AAA last season, enters the game with a 2-2 record, but both losses came against larger teams currently undefeated. The other two games saw the Rebels' defense post shutouts in big victories over Ridge Spring-Monetta and South Aiken.
Strom Thurmond will need a similar effort against a Silver Bluff team that thrives on big plays.
"The main key with them is to stop them from getting those big runs," Strom Thurmond outside linebacker Marcelis Thompson said.
"That's how they beat you. Those big runs can kill you, so we've got to contain them."
Strom Thurmond senior Nick Williamson, bothered with a pulled hamstring that kept him out of the past two games, returned to practice Monday and should be back in the lineup. He'll join tailback Chris Blocker in the backfield at times and could also line up as a receiver.
Silver Bluff (3-1) had its unbeaten mark ruined in a rainy one-point loss to Class AAA Midland Valley last week.
The question is whether the Bulldogs will be able to bounce back quickly.
"We've got a long way to bounce," Lown said.
Reach Billy Byler at (706) 823-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.