The winning outcome was just a bit closer than most expected.
Tyree Stidem scored his second touchdown of the night on a 13-yard keeper, and the visiting Rebels held on for a 17-10 victory over the Hornets at Hagood Stadium.
In a game that felt more like a late-season tilt than the sweltering season-opener that it was, the Class AA Rebels (1-0) ultimately made more big plays than the Class AAA Hornets (0-1).
A case in point came midway through the fourth quarter with the score tied.
Strom Thurmond forced an Aiken punt, and returned it to the Aiken 28. After a big run by Chad Gilchrist, Stidem found an opening up the middle and dashed into the end zone for the decisive score.
Aiken could do nothing on its next possession, but it could have gotten the ball back again. Instead, the Hornets had 12 men on the field as the Rebels lined up to punt. The penalty gave Strom Thurmond a first down.
“There’s no excuse for us to do that,” Aiken coach Brian Neal said. “That can’t happen.”
Stidem, a senior making his debut as the starting quarterback, said it felt good to get a win in the debut for him and coach Antwaun Hillary.
“They came at a time when I had to step up and make a play and I did it,” he said of his two scores.
On the game-winning score, Stidem credited his blockers.
“I got to give that to my O-line,” he said. “It was a big hole and it just opened up.”
Aiken played the visitors even through the first half. The Hornets struck first when the snap sailed high over Strom Thurmond punter Cole Fell’s head, and he chased it down in the end zone and stepped out of bounds for the safety.
Fell put Strom Thurmond ahead with a 22-yard field goal, and Stidem scored on a 3-yard quarterback keeper to lift the Rebels to a 10-2 lead.
Right before the half, though, Aiken covered 69 yards in six plays thanks to a strong passing game and two Strom Thurmond 15-yard penalties. Antwan Chandler slipped past two defenders and leaped high in the air to snag a 25-yard touchdown pass. Brayton Sanders ran up the middle for the conversion to tie it.
Despite the loss, Neal found a lot of positives for the Hornets.
“The effort was good,” he said. “We showed up. We got some breaks early and hung around. We’ve just got to learn to finish.”