AIKEN - The path to the Class AAAA Division II football championship in South Carolina has run through Byrnes the past four years.
Carey Johnson and Aiken know that all too well. The Hornets were stopped short of the title game in 2004 when they ran into the Byrnes buzzsaw in a 56-29 loss.
A year ago, the 12-1 Hornets went on the road to play the Rebels and lost another lopsided affair, 42-14.
A change in the playoff system by the South Carolina High School League could finally offer the Hornets some relief. Not that Johnson is looking that far ahead.
"We can't worry about that now," Johnson said. "We've got to worry about getting better and worry about winning football games."
In years past, the 16 schools with the largest enrollment in the state automatically qualified for the Division I playoffs, regardless of record.
The top three teams in each Class AAAA region this year will make the playoffs. A points system will determine the rest of the 32-team field. From that group, the top 16 schools based on enrollment will make up the Division I bracket.
Byrnes, which has dominated Division II in recent years, would probably move up because it ranks in the top 20 in enrollment already.
"We might see them and, with this new playoff thing, we might not see them if we're fortunate to make the playoffs and go that deep," Johnson said.
With an off-season distraction behind him - Johnson was a candidate for the post at Orangeburg-Wilkinson but was never offered the job - the Hornets are again considered one of the favorites in Region 4-AAAA.
But, as usual, Johnson is quick to downplay his team's potential.
The Hornets must find a replacement for quarterback Brett Williamson, and the heart of the defense (four linemen and two linebackers) was lost to graduation.
"Our goal is the same every year. We expect to go out and compete against anyone we play," Johnson said. "We've got some shoes to fill at key positions. We're just going to keep on tapping the nail, see if we can drive it in."
Phillip Lee is expected to get the start at quarterback for the Hornets. He'll direct Aiken's "Stingbone" attack, a variation of the Wing-T that helped Aiken rack up 30 or more points in seven games last season.
"You know we're going to try to take advantage of what you give us, try to eat some clock," Johnson said with a laugh. "We try to make the game get over as quick as we can."
Defensively, linebacker Derrick Glover and defensive backs Marcel Harley and Darien Crawford are expected to be the leaders, Johnson said.
"I think we have some men who did get a lot of playing time but didn't start," Johnson said. "Hopefully, we'll be OK."
On special teams, the Hornets will again turn to a Reardon to handle the kicking chores. Desmond Reardon, following in the footsteps of older brothers Caldon and Schuyler, is competing for the spot with sophomore Greg Collins.
Aiken is expected to compete with Irmo for the region title this year. That's the opinion of North Augusta's Dan Pippin, who expects the Hornets to be strong again.
"I'm not sure that Aiken High wasn't the second best team in the state last year,'' said Pippin, who previously coached at South Aiken. "I think Aiken High could have played with anyone."
Johnson, though, isn't buying it.
"I have no idea. I don't look at that type stuff," he said. "We've been fortunate. These young kids and coaches come out here and show some dedication and commitment."
Reach John Boyette at (706) 823-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.