AIKEN -- Ten years ago, the South Aiken High School varsity girls were preparing for the biggest game of their playing careers. Now it's the boys turn.
Without any visible fanfare, the varsity boys of South Aiken will head to their first state championship game tonight. The Thoroughbreds are the first boys' team in Aiken County history to vie for the Class AAAA basketball title.
With no pep rally or congratulatory posters clinging to the walls, the boys will play the biggest game of their high school careers in front of a sold-out crowd at Carolina Coliseum in Columbia. Game time is scheduled for 8:30 p.m.
"If we're not ready at this point, we won't be," South Aiken coach Donnie Holland said. "This is one of those things you always dream about, and now it's here."
The South Aiken varsity girls know what it's like being in this position, having won two state titles, the last in 1988.
The path to the state championship began Oct. 27 with the first day of practice, and earlier this week when the Thoroughbreds (24-5) closed the season with a win in the Upper State finals against North Augusta High School. Michael Tyler scored a game-high 20 points, while Tony Kitchings scored 14 points, pulled down 15 rebounds and block six shots as the team rolled to a 67-56 victory.
"I've never coached in a state championship game, so I'm really beside myself, and the players are in really good spirits, too," Mr. Holland said. "About the biggest headache I've had is from people wanting tickets."
One thousand student tickets went on sale at 10 a.m. Thursday morning. They were gone in about three hours.
Ranked third in the state, the Thoroughbreds will duel Socastee High School from Myrtle Beach, the team with the worst record to reach the state finals. The Braves (23-9) won 71 percent of their games, but they've proven the theory of winning when it counts.
Since a midseason swoon that left Socastee with a 5-5 region record, the Braves have won 11 straight and knocked off top-ranked North Charleston, second-ranked Lower Richland and fourth-ranked Richland Northeast in a span of six days.
"This is a terrific team, and they have a lot of heart," said former South Aiken forward Steve Franklin. "They put their hard hats on everyday, and they work hard. I hope they do well."
Now an assistant coach at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla., Mr. Franklin holds the school record for most points in a game. As a senior, he burned the nets with 47 points against Columbia High School. Before Tony Kitchings broke his record, Mr. Franklin was the Thoroughbreds' all-time leading scorer, with a career total of 1,504 points.
"We've been waiting for this since the opening game," said cheerleader Suzanne Paraiso, still hoarse from the win over the Yellow Jackets. "We said it was going to be all or nothing. The guys really stepped up. We're pumped."