AIKEN - Stressing teamwork before individual highlights earned Aiken High many wins in the past two seasons, but it didn't do much for the players' personal statistics.
However, few will dispute that the Hornets' best players could have put up twice their numbers on other teams.
Aiken landed five players on The Augusta Chronicle all-area first team, second only to Class AA state champion Silver Bluff, which put seven on the squad. North Augusta and South Aiken both landed three apiece, Barnwell and Midland Valley two, while Blackville-Hilda, Strom Thurmond, Wagener-Salley and Williston-Elko each sent one.
The Hornets reached the Class AAAA Division II state title game in back-to-back seasons, twice losing to Greenwood. Carey Johnson's team went 25-5 in that span behind the play of a knitted senior group that caught the attention of most opposing coaches.
"They had so many players that could've been stars on other teams, but weren't because they had that much talent on their own team," Midland Valley coach Rick Knight said of the Hornets. "Their numbers suffered because of it, but they were always in position to win. And what's more important?"
Aiken's Brian Staley was dangerous from all over the field. Garnered as one of the top athletes in the state, Staley left his mark as an acrobat, making highlight-reel plays routing. The senior rolled off a 95-yard touchdown reception from Corey Ready in the state finals and scored on a 22-yard touchdown catch in the North-South All Star game.
The speedster posted numbers across the statistics sheet, gaining yards and touchdowns from rushing, receiving, returning punts and kickoffs and picking up interceptions.
"Any time he touched the ball, he was a threat to score," Johnson said.
SCORING BECAME EASIER for North Augusta this year with the area's top two offensive linemen, Clayton Dyson and Nathan Heine, paving the way. Both seniors starred in the Shrine Bowl and made life easier for rising star Reggie Merriweather, who led the area in rushing.
"It makes our job a lot easier when you have a guy with the ability of Reggie (Merriweather)," said Dyson, who has committed to Furman. "Everyone has a job to do. I had no hesitation in laying it all on the line every time. I can look back and know I gave it my all."
Silver Bluff linebacker Shawn Harris gave his all until breaking his hand just three days before the Lower State title game against Barnwell. The junior led the team in tackles despite missing the final two games of the year. Harris was the leader of a Bulldogs defense that was stingy all year, giving up just 5.1 points per game en route to a 15-0 season.
South Aiken broke a 29-game losing streak this year, largely because of Antwaun Carter, Terrence Smith and Artavus Hughes. For Hughes, it was another standout season at linebacker, but it was breakout finales for Carter and Smith on offense as they left the Thoroughbreds program with three victories after two winless seasons.