COLUMBIA - The hype already has begun. Now it's up to Silver Bluff and Batesburg-Leesville to meet the expectations for Saturday's Class AA state championship football game at Williams-Brice Stadium.
"Obviously we're excited about playing Batesburg because they do represent the best of (Class) AA football," Silver Bluff coach Al Lown said. "I think we have to play our best game of the year. We're excited about it, about the challenge of having to play a great team."
Not to be outdone, Batesburg-Leesville coach Phil Strickland was equally effusive in praising his opponent.
"Silver Bluff is one of the premier teams in the state," Strickland said. "I was telling Al a while ago, you can't hardly see them on film, they're so fast."
After that, Lown surrendered.
"I'm not as good as Phil at this," Lown said with a laugh. "He is the champion at this."
The remarks were made Monday during press conferences at the South Carolina High School League offices for this weekend's state championship games. Silver Bluff and Batesburg-Leesville will play at 11 a.m. Saturday, followed by Northwestern vs. Spartanburg (Class AAAA Division I) at 2 p.m., Ninety Six vs. Timmonsville (Class A) at 5 and Camden vs. Union (Class AAA) at 8. Conway and Marlboro County will play for the Class AAAA Division II title Friday at 8 p.m. All games will be at Williams-Brice Stadium.
All kidding aside, Lown and Strickland are very familiar with each other's programs. It was Strickland's Batesburg-Leesville team that handed Silver Bluff its last defeat, a 23-0 decision in the 1999 Lower State championship game. Since then, realignment has moved the Panthers into the Upper State to create the possibility of a championship matchup.
Silver Bluff (14-0) has been ranked No. 1 in Class AA all year and has the state's longest active winning streak at 29 games. Batesburg-Leesville (13-1) exacted revenge on Abbeville, winning 20-7 Friday night to reach the title game for the second time in three years. Abbeville eliminated the Panthers 3-0 in last year's Upper State title game before losing to Silver Bluff 28-21 in the championship game.
Since the two schools met for the state title in 1986 - a Silver Bluff victory - it has been rare for one of the two to not make it to the championship game. Silver Bluff added titles in 1990, 1991 and 2000, while Batesburg-Leesville won the championship in 1995 and 1999 to go along with runnerup finishes in 1992 and 1998. Only Swansea, the state champions from 1992-94, and Barnwell (1987-88) can rival their success during the same time period.
The similarities extend to the style of game both coaches prefer. Strong running games are staples at both schools, with each team featuring a number of scoring threats.
"I think both of us want to run the football, and throw it when we have to," Strickland said. "If we can run it down your throat, we will."
The Panthers are led by Devito Johnson, a 225-pound fullback who has rushed for 1,423 yards and 27 touchdowns this season. He is accompanied by Tori Long, a senior tailback who has accounted for 1,360 yards and 21 scores.
The Bulldogs feature four players who have accumulated more than 1,000 yards this year. Tailback Joe Wilson (1,324 yards), fullback Eddie Bryant (1,196 yards) and wingback Troy Williamson (1,160 yards running, 750 receiving) give Silver Bluff multiple options in the running game. Quarterback Deangelo Bryant has thrown for 1,284 yards.
"Whoever controls the line of scrimmage this time of year will win," Lown said. "We're not a shotgun team. We're a running team. This is going to be a good old-fashioned, pure football game."
Reach John Boyette at (706) 823-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.