JOHNSTON, S.C. --- Strom Thurmond coaches and players heard the chatter during the off-season.
The team had lost 23 seniors and 14 starters. A batch of inexperienced players were now in the spotlight. It was going to be a rough year on the football field.
"We heard it from the beginning of preseason," senior Marcelis Thompson said. "We knew we were going to have to try to prove everybody wrong."
The Rebels are one game away from doing just that.
A Region 3-AA championship and a 9-2 overall record have already impressed fans and opponents who thought the Rebels would suffer through a rebuilding year, but there's one achievement left that could fully prove the Rebels are as good, if not better, than they were a year ago.
"We're at the point where if it ends now, I'll be disappointed," coach Lee Sawyer said. "If we win this week we'll probably get that rematch with Central, and that'll be pretty special to know we're back to that level."
Strom Thurmond, which lost to Central in the state quarterfinals a year ago, will get another shot in the quarterfinal round with a win this week over Broome (7-4).
The Rebels (9-2) got a 43-7 first-round win last week over Eau Claire with starting quarterback Raleigh Yeldell on the sidelines nursing an injured shoulder.
Junior Desmond Davis stepped in at quarterback and completed 7 of 8 passes and scored two touchdowns in the victory. Thompson said Davis' performance was a microcosm of what the Rebels have done all year -- performed at a high level with lower-than-usual expectations.
"Des stepped up and did an amazing job," Thompson said. "That's what we needed, and that's what everybody's been doing. You lose and you go home now, and nobody wants to go home."
Yeldell practiced this week and will be back as the starting quarterback Friday, which will put the Rebels at full strength as they attempt to return to the quarterfinals.
Sawyer said it's good news for a team that hasn't peaked yet this season.
"Every year we try to make sure we improve and we're at our best when the playoffs come," Sawyer said. "We're doing that, and the good part is I don't think we've played our best game yet."
Both Thompson and teammate Jonathan Williams agree with their coach.
The Rebels have outscored their opponents 325-138 and will carry an eight-game winning streak into Friday's contest, but both said the best has yet to come.
"We haven't played a whole ballgame on offense yet," said Williams, a senior lineman who was named to the North-South All-Star Game last week. "There's some mental mistakes, but mostly we get a lead and get satisfied and sometimes we let a team hang around. We can't let that happen anymore."
Reach Billy Byler at (706) 823-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.