Aiken High coach Carey Johnson might not call it a rebuilding job, but that's what it turned out to be.
Two years ago, coming off 8-3 and 11-3 seasons, the last finishing with a state semifinal playoff loss, Johnson opted to build from the ground up. Freshmen and sophomores would be the dominant members of the varsity for the 1997 season. They had the talent, but maybe victories wouldn't be the immediate result.
"They were the best we had," Johnson said of starting underclassman on both the '97 and '98 squads. "We had some seniors and most of them played, but a lot of younger guys stepped up and made some big plays. Now they're getting older, but they're still young. We really haven't had a big class of seniors since 1996."
The 1997 season had them mumbling under their breath in Aiken, just one season after current Florida State star Jamal Reynolds and 25 other seniors nearly led the Hornets to a state title. The young team, with only nine seniors, made the playoffs, but finished 4-8. Aiken High followers expect championships, like the 1992 Class AAAA Division II title.
As the 1998 season approached, Johnson felt more secure because of success in a preseason scrimmage with Marlboro County, which would go on to win the 1998 Class AAAA Division II state title.
"We knew (Marlboro) had a good football team," Johnson said. "From that day on we knew we had something special."
Despite Johnson's upbeat feelings, Aiken continued to wallow in losses. The Hornets, with but 10 seniors, had a three-game losing streak early in the 1998 season. Finally, the Hornets topped then-unbeaten and No. 4-ranked Irmo.
"That win reassured the confidence they already had and gave them confidence they could play with anyone," Johnson said.
Aiken made the playoffs again, placing second in Region 3-AAAA with a 5-2 record, won in the first round of the Division II playoffs and then fell to Walterboro for a final 7-6 record.
That sets up the season Johnson has been waiting for since Reynolds' dominant senior class left Aiken. With a roster still full of juniors and only a handful of seniors, the Hornets are looked to by many as the early favorite to win the title.
"That's our strength and our weakness," said Johnson, in his fifth season as the Hornets' head coach. "We knew we were young last year and we expected to make some mental mistakes. But as the year went on we got better and the mistakes got smaller.
"If we can stay healthy we have a shot at winning this thing. I can see some similarities with this team and the '92 team, but it's too early to really tell. I know they're excited and they want to represent Aiken High football to the best of their abilities. I can count on that."
Junior sensations Corey Ready (5-foot-11, 182 pounds) and Brian Staley (5-8, 161) will provide an exciting one-two punch -- Ready at quarterback after injuring his hand last season and Staley at wide receiver and defensive back.
Junior running back Rod Chandler (5-8, 186) was expected to help anchor the backfield after piling up more than 700 yards as a sophomore, but he suffered a possible season-ending broken leg in the Aiken County Jamboree last week.
And while the Hornets aren't a senior-laden squad, senior leadership isn't a problem with defensive lineman Marcus Simpkins and kicker Morgan Cooke leading the way. Simpkins, who has been hampered by a bum ankle in preseason, anchors a defense that's both talented and young.
Johnson's willingness to be patient is based on his past.
Johnson worked as a ball boy under Dusty Triplett as an eighth grader while Triplett was the head baseball coach at Whitmire (S.C.) High School. The two kept in touch even as Johnson went on to have a brief football stint with Newberry College on the playing field.
Johnson didn't think his days in the game were over after he blew out a knee in his freshman season at linebacker. He already knew that coaching was his calling. He spent his junior and senior years at Newberry commuting back and forth from home to volunteer coaching duties at Whitmire High, and spent the next four years after graduation in 1985 as the linebackers coach at Saluda High School.
"I knew even before I went to college that I wanted to coach football," Johnson said. "It was tough at my size to play so I just wanted to gain some experience anywhere I could. Coach Triplett and I had talked about me eventually going with him, but we could never get the teaching situation intact."
Triplett came to Aiken High in 1987 and called Johnson two years later to coach linebackers.
The reunion lasted only one season as Triplett took a similar position in Florida, leaving Johnson under the wings of Doug Painter. After a 6-5 season in 1991, Painter named Johnson defensive coordinator.
Overwhelmed, but accepting of the challenge, Johnson was given full control of the defense and the Hornets made their first season back into Class AAAA a memorable one. Aiken went 13-2 in 1992, knocking off Hartsville 21-14 for the Class AAAA Division II state title.
"It came as a shock when he asked me, because it came with a lot of responsibilities," Johnson said. "But I really respect him for letting me handle everything. He stepped back and let me do whatever I wanted to and I'm grateful to him for that."
Painter left for Belton High after the 1994 season. Johnson and two other coaches from Painter's staff applied for the position with the intention of keeping the system intact.
Five years later, Johnson hopes he's up to the task.