JOHNSTON, S.C. — Small town, public school football met recruit-centered, private school football to open up the 2012 season on Friday night.
Though the two programs couldn’t have been founded more differently, both teams walked off the field with mutual respect after Eastern Christian Academy’s 39-35 win over Strom Thurmond High School.
Strom Thurmond head coach Lee Sawyer paused a moment before choosing his words carefully and looking over to his team and the community that supports it.
“This is what football should be about,” he said. “You’ve got a small town and kids that grew up together, kids that love each other, against what high school football’s becoming, which bothers me.”
Eastern Christian Academy’s football program was rebooted over the off-season to bring in top recruits, nine of which, Sawyer said, had already been offered roster spots on major colleges. The team traveled more than 600 miles one way from Elkton, Md., to fill a hole in Strom Thurmond’s schedule made when Laney dropped them over the summer.
While the difference between heavily groomed, future college stars and the Rebels might have seemed obvious in size and athleticism during warm-ups, Strom Thurmond traded blows with Eastern Christian in a battle of two different but effective offenses.
“What a gutsy effort by our kids,” Sawyer said. “They’ve got nine D-I guys? What a gutsy effort.”
Strom Thurmond proved its worth early when the defense held Eastern Christian to three-and-out on the opening drive. After a botched snap on a punt, the Rebels took over on the Honey Badgers’ 10-yard line but failed to convert.
The rest of the game saw Eastern Christian quarterback David Sills, a University of Southern California commit, blister the Rebels defense for more than 300 passing yards.
Strom Thurmond responded with a 1-2 punch on the ground that saw quarterback Javeer Hammond and tailback Darius Hammond combine for more than 200 rushing yards.
The effort from Darius Hammond, back after missing much of last season with an ankle injury, was expected as he opened his senior year. But the game was a breakout statement for Javeer Hammond, a junior quarterback with a small frame and deceptively strong arm that he used to top 200 passing yards and three touchdowns.
“We knew we had to give it our all. I gave it my all, and my teammates did, too,” Javeer Hammond said. “I heard people talk about them, but if they can play we can play. They put their pants on the same way we do.”
The two teams combined for seven second-half touchdowns and each one of them resulted in a lead change. Strom Thurmond put together long, sustained scoring drives of 75, 83 and 80 yards in the second half, while Eastern Christian countered with long, momentum-swinging highlight plays through the air.
Sills broke from the strategy late by keeping the ball himself and scrambling 26 yards for the go-ahead score with four minutes left.
Strom Thurmond’s offense failed to answer for the first time in the second half, going three-and-out.
The Rebel defense held to give the home team one more shot with 22 seconds left, and the offense managed to get to Eastern Christian’s 45 yard line thanks to a pass interference penalty that gave Strom Thurmond an untimed down.
But Javeer Hammond’s desperation pass was tipped and knocked to the ground to end the game.