AIKEN -- For any other team, this kind of success would have been expected next year.
But not for the Aiken Hornets, who have grown up fast and will play Greenwood for the Class AAAA Division II state title at 8 tonight at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia.
South Carolina Educational Television (WEBA-Channel 14 in Allendale, S.C.) will show tonight's game and all of Saturday's other division championships.
"Yeah, a lot of people expected us to be here, but people had to realize what he had," Aiken coach Carey Johnson said. "We had a young team. But fortunately for us we had a lot of young men to step up and make big plays."
The Hornets are made up of mostly juniors, but they have just enough senior leadership to be considered experienced. The blend has given Johnson and his staff a winning recipe that Hornet fans have come to expect.
One of the squad's 10 seniors, defensive lineman-fullback Marcus Simpkins has been the Hornets' inspiration, anchoring a defensive front not many teams have been able to conquer. The 6-foot-3, 270-pound Simpkins, who was selected to South Carolina's Shrine Bowl team, plays alongside fellow senior Brent Gibbs, a North-South All-Star Game pick.
The team that started the season 3-2 now speaks with maturity and confidence. Perhaps that's because most of them have played ball together since first grade.
"We didn't get this far just to lose," said junior running back Antwan Smith. "Some teams are probably just happy to get there, but not us. We want to win. Since we were little, championships are all we've worked for."
The talk about this season and next began shortly after Aiken finished the year 7-6 and lost to Walterboro in the second round of the playoffs.
Expectations grew in the season-opening 56-8 win over Sumter. But the reality of youth set in the following week when Aiken went to Colquitt County and fell 20-3 to the Georgia Class AAAA team, which is competing in the quarterfinals tonight. Three weeks later, in the Region 3-AAAA opener against defending champ Lexington, Aiken held a 14-0 lead only to lose 31-17.
"We've got to develop that killer instinct," an upset Johnson said after the loss. "This won't happen again, that's for sure. They'll learn what it takes."
The Hornets have run off nine straight wins since the Lexington loss, reminiscent of the 1992 squad that won the Class AAAA Division II title with a 21-14 win over Hartsville. The Hornets finished with a 13-2 record that year and can equal that mark with a win over the Eagles tonight.
Reach Patrick Green at (803) 648-1395.
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