A second-half rally to lift the state championship trophy was only fitting for Aiken’s dramatic 1992 run.
The Hornets faced all kinds of challenges throughout the 1992 season, from a move up in classification to a smaller roster to a bizarre number of second-half comebacks. The unique storylines all led to one of the most memorable state title runs among area schools.
Entering that season 25 years ago, Aiken coach Doug Painter liked his chances despite not getting much preseason publicity.
Painter told The Augusta Chronicle after the state championship game that his Hornets were picked to finish fourth in Region 3-AAAA, but a previous quote from the head coach showed his confidence in the group by comparing his upperclassmen to a 1989 class that reached the state title game.
“We had a great senior class in 1989,” Painter told The Chronicle. “I’d compare this year’s senior class to that one.”
Painter may have seen success in his team’s future, but it was far from certain early in the season.
Aiken moved up to Class AAAA in a year when it was faced with smaller numbers on the roster, creating a challenge of facing bigger schools with potentially more depth.
That task didn’t seem to bother the Hornets. In fact, they embraced being second-half warriors.
Aiken went 13-2 that season, and more than half of those victories featured late rallies. Many of those were key region or playoff wins, including the final two games to overcome the odds for its first state title.
The Hornets entered the state championship game on a 10-game winning streak, but several of those victories, including against opponents such as Midland Valley, South Aiken, Airport and Brookland-Cayce, required second-half comebacks.
After doing it to the rival Thoroughbreds in the regular season, their late-game magic showed again in a playoff matchup to win 22-19.
They followed with playoff victories over Laurens, 28-23, and Union, 31-24 in double overtime, to reach the state title game. It marked Aiken’s first trip to the biggest stage since losing to Greer in the 1989 Class AAA title game, 13-7, and the Hornets lost to Honea Path in the 1945 Class A final.
Aiken’s final task was its largest and most difficult. The opponent, Hartsville, entered the game undefeated and previously won state championships in 1981, ’87 and ’88, defeating North Augusta 21-12 for the title in 1988.
Hartsville entered with eight shutouts to its record that season and the confidence that goes with a 14-0 mark, but Aiken also had high hopes after outlasting everything thrown its way through a magical playoff run to that point.
Accounts from the Dec. 5, 1992, Class AAAA Division II championship game at South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium describe the Saturday night as freezing cold. By the end of the night, Aiken’s play and the final result produced many more chills for the fan base.
Trailing Hartsville 14-7 entering the fourth quarter, Aiken needed one more late rally. It began with three minutes left in the game when Cedric Johnson capped a 15-play, 60-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run to tie it at 14.
Still tied with 36 seconds left, Marcus Glover threw a pass up the middle to Johnson, who cut back to his right to dodge a defender and scampered into the end zone to the elation of Aiken’s traveling faithful.
“The large following of Aiken fans, who ventured to Williams-Brice Stadium, exploded with delight after Johnson’s touchdown,” described The Chronicle’s account of the game.
“When I got in the end zone, all I was thinking is – it’s over,” Johnson told The Chronicle.
The touchdown pass sealed the 21-14 win for Aiken and its first state championship. Players dumped water on Painter’s back in celebration and hoisted the trophy. An Aiken cheerleader even required oxygen on the sideline to help calm down after celebrating the victory.
“This feels great,” Painter said after the game. “Even though we were picked to finish fourth in the region, we always felt we had a pretty good team. It was just a matter of putting it together.”
With Johnson’s touchdown reception sealing the championship, Aiken put it together in the most memorable, dramatic way.
The 1992 title remains Aiken’s only state trophy in football. The Hornets tried again in 1999 and 2000 but lost to Greenwood each time. But 25 years later, the aura of that run is still felt on the north side of town.
“This was a dream come true,” defensive end Jerome Bean said after the championship. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Reach David Lee at (706) 823-3216 or email@example.com.