As much as Hilton Head Christian Academy football coach Tommy Lewis would like to be able to tell his players this week was just like any other, the Eagles would know better than to believe him.
It's not every week, after all, that television cameras pop up during routine practices and players are pulled aside during drills to conduct interviews. It's not every week that a team plays for a state championship.
Luckily for the Eagles, it has become an almost annual occurrence, a fact Lewis hopes will help his team today, when it faces Thomas Sumter Academy for the SCISAA Class 2-A title at 3:30 p.m. at Benedict College in Columbia.
Even with the Eagles playing in their fourth title game in five years, though, Lewis is somewhat apprehensive about how his team will handle playing on SCISAA's biggest stage.
"It's good to know what it's like to be there, but at the same time, it's a totally new experience for this team, for this group of guys," Lewis said. "The whole year has been a different experience, because it's a different team. But it's certainly nice to know there are guys on the team that have been there and done that."
Indeed, the Eagles did it a year ago, beating Northwood Academy 33-14 at Orangeburg Prep to claim the school's second state title. Although many key players from that team graduated, a number are back and bent on delivering back-to-back titles for the first time in the football program's nine-year history.
Hilton Head Christian (10-1) got to this point by winning seven consecutive games, the last of which was a 32-26 home victory against Hilton Head Prep in last week's semifinals. After beating the Dolphins 49-28 two weeks earlier, the Eagles needed an Alex Martin interception in the end zone to stop Hilton Head Prep's potential go-ahead drive with less than a minute left.
That experience taught them to take a 39-10 win at Thomas Sumter on Sept. 17 as any indication of the challenge they will face today.
"I know they didn't have such a good game the first game -- we were just ready for that game -- but we're expecting them to be a better team," said senior Eric Farr, who will start at receiver for the Eagles. "We feel like we've gotten better, but we've seen on video that they've improved a lot. It will be an intense game."
The Eagles went into the first meeting against the Generals with the notion of avenging a 46-21 loss at Thomas Sumter in the 2008 semifinals, and they left satisfied. The defense held Thomas Sumter to 201 total yards and didn't allow an offensive touchdown, and Eagles quarterback Luke Sirgo threw four touchdown passes, three of which went to Martin.
Now it's the Generals (12-1) who have the added motivation that comes with coveting revenge. As much as they believe the eight-game winning streak they've reeled off since -- which included four consecutive shutouts -- indicates the loss to Hilton Head Christian was a fluke, they know there's only one sure way to prove it.
"Our kids know that they didn't play well and that they can play with anybody," Generals coach Troy Kessinger said. "They have confidence in themselves. We've just got to make plays."
The Generals came out flat after a long lightning delay in the first meeting, allowing Hilton Head Christian to jump out to a 33-10 halftime lead. The Eagles don't expect such a lackluster start from Thomas Sumter today.
"They're going to come out hitting us," Eagles senior Ryan Emery said. "We've got to get through the first quarter, really, because we've been having trouble with that. We can't just play the second half and beat these guys. We've got to beat them for four quarters."
SCISAA Class 2-A championship
Who: Hilton Head Christian (10-1) vs. Thomas Sumter Academy (12-1)
When: Today, 3:30 p.m.
Where: Charlie W. Johnson Stadium, Benedict College (Corner of Read St. and Two Notch Road, Columbia)
Hilton Head Christian
Offense: QB Luke Sirgo, RB JaBrook Tucker, WR Alex Martin, WR Josh Mousseau, WR Eric Farr, TE Ryan Emery, LT Kyle Weaver, LG Cole Malphrus, C Alec Westmark, RG John Taylor Stones, RT Nick Borghi
Defense: DT Cole Malphrus, NG Robert Campos, DT Kyle Weaver, OLB Ryan Smith, ILB Tyshawn Walls, ILB Clay Oliver, OLB Zach Reynolds, CB Tyler Chisholm, CB J.D. Reichel, SS Devan Fitzhugh, FS Ryan Emery
Special teams: K Tyler Chisholm, P Luke Sirgo, KR JaBrook Tucker, KR Tyler Chisholm, KR Tyshawn Walls, PR Ryan Emery
Thomas Sumter Academy
Offense: QB Patrick Stegall, RB Charles Metcalfe, RB Michael Fitzgerald, WR Kristopher Payne, WR Dalton Shipman, TE Les Lawson, LT Thomas Dillion, LG Seth Frazier, C Taylor Waldrop, RG Austin Baker, RT Kenton Wheeler
Defense: DE Michael Fitzgerald, DE Wesly Cannonier, DT John Eckert, DT Josh McAda, NG Les Lawson, LB Brantlee Warren, LB Paris Tindal, CB Kristopher Payne, CB Patrick Stegall, S Jordan Tindal, S Shane Bishop
Special teams: K Blake Haynes, P Patrick Stegall, PR Kristopher Payne, KR Jordan Tindal, PR Devin Felix
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Hilton Head Christian
vs. Florence Christian (W, 49-37)
Sirgo, Tucker combine for 351 rushing yards, six TDs.
vs. First Baptist (W, 45-2)
Eagles' defense allows only 61 total yards.
at Thomas Sumter (W, 39-10)
Martin has 193 receiving yards, three of Sirgo's four TDs.
at Augusta Christian (L, 27-19)
Sirgo throws three TDs, but late rally falls short.
vs. Palmetto Christian (W, 55-16)
Defense forces four turnovers, Sirgo tosses four TDs.
at St. Andrew's (W, 44-26)
Emery catches two TD passes, returns kickoff for a score.
vs. Northwood Academy (W, 41-21)
Sirgo nearly perfect, throws TDs to Farr, Martin and Mousseau.
vs. Thomas Heyward (W, 41-14)
Tucker scores three TDs, Eagles blow it open in second half.
at Hilton Head Prep (W, 49-28)
Defense holds Prep to 66 total yards, 7 points in second half.
vs. Florence Christian (W, 48-28)
Sirgo throws four TDs, runs for two as Eagles cruise.
vs. Hilton Head Prep (W 32-26)
Martin's interception stops potential go-ahead drive.
vs. Orangeburg Prep (W, 14-13)
Metcalfe scores TD, 2-point conversion with 45 seconds left for win.
at Wilson Hall (W, 27-25)
Haynes boots 23-yard field goal as time expires for win over rivals.
vs. Pee Dee Academy (W, 36-18)
Stegall throws for 310 yards, four TDs in big region win.
at Hilton Head Prep (W 42-26)
Stegall accounts for four TDs, and Generals rally from 12-0 deficit.
vs. Hilton Head Christian (L, 39-10)
Eagles hold Generals to 201 total yards, no offensive TDs.
at Northwood Academy (W, 30-6)
Metcalfe runs for 121 yards as Generals avenge 2009 semifinal loss.
vs. Richard Winn Academy (W, 34-0)
Generals' defense dominant, holding Eagles to 113 total yards.
at Williamsburg Academy (W, 43-0)
Stegall accounts for 302 total yards, four TDs.
vs. Robert E. Lee Academy (W 49-0)
Payne catches three of Stegall's four TD passes in blowout.
vs. Calhoun Academy (W, 48-0)
Seven players score rushing TDs, defense posts fourth straight shutout.
at Florence Christian (W, 49-7)
Generals roll up 289 rushing yards, Metcalfe scores two TDs.
vs. Northwood Academy (W, 44-7)
Two first-quarter TDs by defense propel Generals to blowout win.
vs. St. Andrew's (W, 48-24)
Stegall throws four TDs as Generals pull away in fourth quarter.