With the Rebels driving toward a potential game-winning touchdown in the final two minutes, Hartsville linebacker Laquan Haigler sacked the Strom Thurmond quarterback from the blind side, knocking the ball onto the ground.
Then Haigler scooped up the ball and raced 71 yards for the clinching touchdown with 55 seconds left Friday night as the Red Foxes knocked off the Rebels 21-10 in the Class AAA Upper State title game.
The Rebels had reached the Hartsville 17-yard line when Haigler blitzed from Hammond’s left and dislodged the ball.
It was a crushing loss for the Rebels (12-2), who led most of the game.
“This team came together as one,” said Hammond. “It hurts. It really hurts.”
Darius Hammond rushed 20 times for 116 yards and Javeer Hammond added 114 yards on 22 carries.
Thurmond lost two apparent touchdowns because of holding penalties. Still, Trent Miller’s 31-yard field goal had given the Rebels a 10-0 third-quarter lead.
The Red Foxes rebounded to grab a 14-10 lead with an 11-play, 96-yard drive capped by Dominic Robinson’s 2-yard run and Sam Williamson’s kick with 3:52 left.
“Our defense played lights out all night,” Strom Thurmond coach Lee Sawyer said. “Then we give up a long ball to set up their first touchdown. Then they drive 90-something yards on us.”
But the Rebels charged back. Trevonte Watkins returned a short kickoff out to midfield and Darius Hammond raced 23 yards on the first play of the drive. A reverse backfired, setting up the sack and fumble return that sealed the Rebels’ fate.
The Rebels stopped Hartsville inside the red zone three times in the first half and held the Red Foxes to 163 yards on the ground.
But quarterback Shaquille Johnson connected six times to Trey Gattison for 175 yards, including receptions of 46 and 58 yards. The 58-yarder set up Trey Rogers’ 2-yard scoring run that pulled Hartsville within 10-7 late in the third quarter.
The Rebels stopped Hartsville inside the Thurmond 10 twice in the first half. Both times the Red Foxes went for a first down and failed.
“I thought coming down here we were going to have to be aggressive,” Hartsville coach Jeff Calabrese said. “I didn’t feel like we could swap field goals with them.”
Prior to Hartsville’s 96-yard, go-ahead drive, Javeer Hammond bobbled the snap on fourth-and-goal from the Red Foxes’ 2 and was stopped.
Javeer Hammond set up his own 5-yard touchdown run with a 40-yard carry up the middle that put Thurmond on top in the second quarter.
Thurmond safety Demetrius Leysath leaped and tipped away a potential touchdown pass on fourth down that would have put the Red Foxes on the scoreboard first.
After an emotional final huddle on the field after the game, Thurmond players were left feeling the sting of coming one game short of a state championship game for the second straight season.
“It was a very special season,” Sawyer said. “They’ve got to be proud of all they accomplished.”