JOHNSTON, S.C. - Lee Sawyer tried to contain his emotion Friday night. His watery eyes wouldn't let him.
The Strom Thurmond coach claimed he's not a sensitive guy. But give Sawyer a little leeway. In two short seasons, he now has his team one game away from a state title.
Coco Hillary accounted for four touchdowns as Strom Thurmond pounded Dillon, 35-7, in the Class AAA semifinals. The victory advances the Rebels to the state championship game for the first time in a decade.
"It just kind of gets to you I guess," Sawyer said. "Every week, every month out of the year has been geared toward this. I'm awful proud of them."
The Lower State champions are heading to Columbia. There, Strom Thurmond (13-1) will face Clinton, a 28-7 winner over Union, at 8 p.m. next Saturday in Williams-Brice Stadium.
The Rebels are playing in the state finals for the first time since 1995. Strom Thurmond also is seeking its first state title in almost four decades.
"It means everything," center Matt Holmes said. "All the hard work you put in the summer, going to passing leagues. It's all for this. This is what you dream for as a little kid coming to see Strom Thurmond. To do it, it's unbelievable."
Said Hillary: "Every high school player in the nation dreams of making it to the state championship. Just being in that stadium in that atmosphere is a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
The Rebels faced an experienced Dillon team that reached the state semifinals for the fourth consecutive season. That knowledge didn't help the Wildcats (11-3) against a relentless Strom Thurmond defense.
Stefon Cunningham, Tim Thomas and Jonah Lanham recorded interceptions, and Keon Cunningham added a key forced fumble. The Rebels limited Dillon to 132 total yards of offense, 35 in the first half.
"We had seen that they love to run the ball with speed and strength," Thomas said. "I got to thank the coaches. They planned for that."
Strom Thurmond scored on two of its first two drives to seize the early momentum. Hillary scored on a 16-yard touchdown run. Twenty seconds later, after a Wildcats fumble, Hillary lobbed a pass to Martavious Williams streaking down the middle for a 23-yard touchdown.
Suddenly, Strom Thurmond led 14-0.
"The first time (Dillon) had it they ran the Power-I and looked like they could knock us off the ball and make first downs and keep the ball away from our offense," Sawyer said. "Getting those two scores early was huge, because it got them out of that."
Dillon seemed flustered by the early hole. The Wildcats managed one first down in the second quarter, and quarterback John Williams tossed two interceptions before halftime.
Meanwhile, Sawyer said he knew it was the Rebels' night after one play late in the second quarter. Facing a third-and-27 from the 35, Hillary threw a pass over two defenders to Dakar Hamilton for another score.
"That throw right there just kind of put us over the top," Sawyer said.
Strom Thurmond mounted a 28-0 halftime lead and never looked back.
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.