North Augusta's football schedule has taken on the feel of a campaign trail recently. The Yellow Jackets are trying to make a name for themselves in a two-state area that once dismissed them as a mediocre team.
Last year's 11-2 season turned a few heads as North Augusta became the top team in Aiken County. But beyond the county line, head coach Dan Pippin said his team is still easily overlooked.
Last week's win over Class AAAA Big 16 team Dutch Fork opened a few eyes in Columbia. A marquee matchup Friday against Columbia County power Lakeside could bring similar recognition from the other side of the river.
"The win last week was big for us in South Carolina," Pippin said. "We don't play teams in Augusta, so this week is a big deal for us, too."
The Yellow Jackets, drawing fans with an exciting, high-scoring offense, will clash with a Lakeside team that wins with a crushing defense. The Panthers recorded seven shutouts last year on their way to a region championship. This year the team has allowed one touchdown in each of its first two games, and only a last-second field goal at Thomson has beaten Lakeside so far.
North Augusta, which started the season with several question marks on defense after the departure of last year's large senior class, has won with a bumper crop of skill players leading the offense.
Quarterback Loranzo Hammonds was the only athlete in the area to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 2,000 last year, and he's already tallied 570 passing yards two games into his senior year. He completed 21 of 24 passes for 355 yards in last week's 38-28 win over Dutch Fork.
"Two of those incompletions were spikes. He had one dropped pass and one overthrow," Pippin said. "Then he was making those 'Loranzo plays' where he runs around all over and makes my hair fall out."
But the Yellow Jackets still have room to improve, especially as they prepare to face one of the area's top squads. Team captain Justin Milledge heads a North Augusta defense that gave up two fourth-quarter touchdowns to Dutch Fork to turn a potential blowout into a close game.
"We have a very good offense, and it's fun to watch them from the sidelines," Milledge said. "But as a defense, we don't want to just rely on our offense to score a lot of points so we can win. We're trying for a shutout every game, and every time we step on the field we're getting better."
The defense got its feet wet with a season-opening win over Midland Valley two weeks ago, and North Augusta's shot at boosting its reputation will run past its nonregion matchup against Lakeside.
Sandwiching a road trip to Class AAAA Evans on Sept. 24 are games against Sumter and Northwestern, who combined have played in three Class AAAA state championship games in the past two years.
"This is going to be a tough four weeks," Pippin said.