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The time for a test drive, kicking the tires and checking under the hood is over for the Sumter High School football team. Head coach Mark Barnes will take the Gamecocks out on the open road on Friday - to Rock Hill's District Three Stadium to be precise - to face Rock Hill High at 7:30 p.m.
"You're always excited when you get to play that first game of the season," said Barnes, who will be starting his fifth season in charge of the SHS program. "We've had a tough week practicing for the first game (because of heat, humidity and thunderstorms). Our guys are ready to get out there and play."
Sumter is coming off a 10-1 season in which it went undefeated in the regular season, winning the Region IV-5A title before losing to Byrnes in the second round of the state playoffs. The Bearcats also won a region title last year - III-5A - before losing in the second round of the playoffs to Gaffney to finish 8-3.
The Gamecocks beat RH 33-23 in last year's season opener at Memorial Stadium. They rallied from a 17-10 deficit to pull out the victory in a game that was delayed for 1 hour, 20 minutes, for lightning.
SHS was close to being down two scores when quarterback Ontra' Harvin fumbled the football and Rock Hill recovered at the Sumter 6-yard line. However, Gamecock defensive back O'Donnell Fortune, a South Carolina commitment, came up with an interception in the end zone to end the threat.
SHS drove 80 yards for a touchdown and scored on a 2-point conversion to take an 18-17 lead into halftime. It never looked back from there.
Barnes said this Bearcat team is comparable to last year's squad. He and his squad are looking forward to the challenge.
"They've got a great football tradition," Barnes said of RH. "We're excited to be going up there and playing in such a great football environment. They're a good, quality opponent. They are a really good defensive team."
Rock Hill has nine starters returning on defense, but they will be going up against a different type of Sumter offense this year. Running back Jonathan Henry ran for 171 yards for Sumter last season in its run-friendly offense. Barnes has said the Gamecocks will be throwing the football a lot more this season with Hayden Vasquez at quarterback
The left-handed junior signal caller completed 22 of 34 passes for 359 yards and three touchdowns while playing in eight games last season. Barnes has been talking up the depth of his receiving corps, which is led by seniors Tony Dinkins-McCall and Tylee Craft.
Dinnkins-McCall, a Georgia Southern commitment, had 51 catches for 679 yards and eight scores, while Craft, a North Carolina commitment, had 21 catches for 400 yards and five scores.
"Hayden is much improved, and he has spent a lot of time at it," Barnes said. "We're blessed to have great receivers as well. That's going to give us more options on offense, and I don't think people are going to be able to defend the run as easily."
While Sumter lost Henry, it does have senior Justice Wells ready to fill his spot. Wells rushed for 528 yards and eight TDs on 59 carries.
Sumter is inexperienced on both sides of the line of scrimmage, but Barnes believes those players are plenty talented. "I feel like they can all play," he said. "They're big, strong and physical. They just need the experience."
With the newcomers and the new offensive emphasis, Barnes is anticipating what his team will do."I think they're as good as they were last year," Barnes said of Rock Hill. "I just don't know if we're as good as we were last year. You just don't know until you get out there and play a game."
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