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The Sumter High School football team looks to have a full head of steam as it rolls into the second round of the 5A state playoffs. The Gamecocks are fresh off a 45-7 victory over Woodmont in the first round, which improved their record to 10-0 on the season.
The Gamecocks will be looking to extend that unbeaten record on Friday when they play host to Gaffney in the second round on Memorial Stadium's Freddie Solomon Field beginning at 7:30 p.m.
The Gamecocks have reached that 10-win mark because they've shown an ability to be versatile. After losing Tony Dinkins-McCall to an anterior cruciate ligament injury, Sumter started to highlight Nathan Harris-Waynick more in the offense. He is now just shy of 1,000 yards on the season and has 23 rushing touchdowns and is a great example of how different players have stepped up when called upon to do so.
SHS head coach Mark Barnes said his team's ability to make those adjustments is crucial the deeper they get into the playoffs.
"The biggest thing is those guys that have stepped up have stepped up all year. When Tony went down, we went away from it (the passing game) just to see if we could establish the running game with Nate and obviously we did a really good job of that," said Barnes. "We're building our (run-pass option) plays based off what Nate is good at when running the ball, so that's been somewhat of a transition, but that's the biggest thing."
Sumter has had its share of problems in the second round of the playoffs the last few years, but Barnes and the Gamecocks aren't too worried about what people outside of their locker room are saying about that. They're just worried about facing off against a good Gaffney team, which comes to town with an 8-3 record after beating Rock Hill 27-6 in the first round.
"Our kids don't think about that," said Barnes on the second-round slump. "We understand that Gaffney is a good football team and a lot of times the reason you get beat is you go against a really good team. In the second round we've lost to Byrne twice and Summerville once (in Barnes' first four years) and those two programs are good football programs.
"We were competitive in all those games, but didn't make plays in the end. This Friday night is no different than any other game we've played this year. We just need to go out and play the best we can play. We're the only team we can control anyway."
Gaffney's offense has given teams fits all season just for the sheer volume of weapons. Quarterback Undre Lindsay has thrown for 2,469 yards and 22 touchdowns on the year and has spread the ball out to a number of players. Demari Littlejohn has been a problem for defenses all season, as he's racked up 689 receiving yards and 11 scores. Natron Johnson leads the team in receiving yards with 740, while also catching three touchdowns. They also have Stan Ellis at receiver, who is committed to Appalachian State, though he has been limited to just six games this season. He's caught four touchdowns and has 274 receiving yards on the year.
"They've got so many skill players that you can't go out there and say you want to take this guy away because they're kind of like us in that regard. If you spend too much time on one guy, someone else will beat you," said Barnes. "The common problem in every high school offense is the quarterback. He's the guy who has the ball every play, so we have to do a good job of containing him. When we've done that this year and haven't let quarterbacks get out of the pocket and run forever and throw the ball, we've been pretty good defending the run and the pass. Obviously, that'll be our plan Friday night."
On top of its passing game, Gaffney has a stable of backs that have made an impact. They've rushed for 1,780 yards and 30 touchdowns as a team. Five players have at least 150 yards, led by 651 yards and 10 TDs scored from Kelvin Kirby. Tyler Smith has also rushed for 415 yards and four scores. Seven different players have rushed for multiple touchdowns on the year. Their running backs are also very involved with their passing game on screens, so bottling up those plays in the backfield will be crucial.
"They do a good job of screens, but they're really perimeter runs. That's the new age of football now, to just put screens out to athletes," said the Sumter head coach. "Those are running plays too, and we have to do a good job against tailback runs and quarterback runs and limiting their screen game and keeping that under control, getting them into long yard situations."
Much like the offense, Gaffney has weapons across the field defensively, but the area that stands out most to Barnes is the Indians' defensive front. Winning the line of scrimmage is crucial, so the Gamecocks will need to find a way to neutralize their four down linemen.
"All four of their defensive linemen are as good as we've seen. It's like looking at us," said Barnes. "We're really good up front and have strong linebackers and they're the same. Nobody has really lined up and just blocked those guys. They do a really great job of being fundamentally sound, technique sound and their overall team speed is excellent. Any time you play guys that are good up front and have good team speed, it's generally why you're a good defensive football team and that's certainly the case with Gaffney.
"We have to find ways to get them off-balance and get them stepping in the wrong direction to give us some advantages in the run and passing game," added the Sumter head coach.
With a day full of rain in the forecast, Barnes sees the biggest key of the game as something pretty simple: hold onto the football.
"I don't think it's different than any other week. You have to take care of the football, don't get penalized, stay in front of the chains and with the weather forecast for Friday night, handle the weather," said Barnes. "It's going to be kind of chilly and rainy and nobody can use that as an excuse for not playing well."
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