JOHNSTON, S.C. --- Strom Thurmond's football players and coaches have no shortage of memories when it comes to Central High School in Pageland. The Class AA squad, situated only a few miles from the North Carolina border, has ended the Rebels' postseason hopes each of the past two years.
Junior quarterback Raleigh Yeldell remembers a potential touchdown pass that fell off the tips of his fingers when he was a freshman receiver in a 12-7 loss at home in 2008.
Senior offensive lineman Fred Alewine remembers the costly fourth-quarter fumble at Central last year that sealed the Rebels' fate.
Coach Lee Sawyer remembers last year's "long, lonely ride," a 2 1/2-hour trip back from Central after a five-point loss.
The Rebels will either put those memories behind them or add to them tonight during the next chapter in what has become an annual showdown of two small, powerhouse football programs.
This year, Strom Thurmond plays host to Central in the quarterfinals of the Class AA state playoffs.
"We've been waiting for this one for a whole year," senior offensive lineman Trey Caines said. "The third time's a charm, right?"
It hurts to bring up the memories of close losses and season-ending defeats, but Sawyer said it is something his team must face.
"I think you've got to. You have to bring up the past and talk about it," he said. "We've scoured through both of those films to see what was effective and what we should throw out. It all comes down to the little things."
Strom Thurmond senior linebacker Tony Stepney, who originally thought he could recover from preseason knee surgery in time to make a return at this point in the season, said Wednesday his doctor told him he won't be able to play at all this year.
But the Rebels will have the benefit of playing on their home field, where they haven't lost since the last time Central came to Johnston in 2008.
"Mentally that's an advantage," Sawyer said.
The winner will head to the Class AA upper state title game. Central hasn't lost since a one-point defeat in the state championship game last season. Strom Thurmond has a 14-game home winning streak on the line.
Sawyer said his team might be more equipped to put points on the board against its old nemesis.
"We might have a few more weapons on offense than we had last year," he said.
Yeldell has matured in his second season as the starting quarterback. Tailback Darius Hammond leads the team in rushing with 11 touchdowns on 105 carries and an average of 7.7 yards per carry.
The passing game is perhaps the most promising development for the Rebels. Yeldell has already thrown for more than 1,100 yards this season with able targets in Antonio Hamilton and Marquez Mathis.
"It's a good feeling knowing that we've done what we needed to do to get back here," Alewine said. "We know it's about to get even better. It's going to be 48 minutes of going hard for us, and as long as we get rid of the mental mistakes, we're going to be fine."