NORTH AUGUSTA — Matt Reel paused for a moment and directed the attention toward his right, some 20 yards away.
There, his North Myrtle Beach Chiefs were celebrating among the crowd that, like them, made the four-hour drive to North Augusta on Friday for a first-round playoff game.
Not only did they endure the ride, but they had to endure a North Augusta team that just wouldn't go away.
Yet there were the Chiefs, piling on top of one another following a 38-31, triple overtime win to set up a second-round meeting with rival Myrtle Beach.
"Look at that, man. That's what it's all about right there," said Reel, gesturing toward the celebration, a stark contrast from the mood moments ago when he exchanged post-game pleasantries with North Augusta's coaching staff. "Kids, community, everybody doing their part. That's huge. I'm really proud for our kids."
Ramsey Lewis' touchdown run in triple overtime was his fourth TD of the game — the North-South selection passed for two in regulation and then rushed for a score in each of the final two extra periods — and it gave the Chiefs a 38-31 lead, and then they sent out the defense for a stop that had been so hard to come by against sophomore quarterback Austin Harrell and the Yellow Jackets.
But they got it. The Chiefs sacked Harrell at the 20 yard line on second down, forcing a third and long. The Jackets trimmed 12 yards off of that with a third down pass play, then faced a fourth-and-the-season from the 8.
Harrell rolled to his right and threw toward the pylon.
That sent the Chiefs streaming off the sidelines into a celebratory dog pile in the end zone for the short term, and back much closer to home to face the Seahawks in a week.
Zane Smith and Drew Stevens traded field goals in the first overtime, with Stevens' kick coming after Harrell scored what looked like the game-winner for the Jackets from a yard out, but it was flagged for an illegal shift – meaning the students who had rushed the field had to quickly exit the playing surface.
Lewis rushed for 138 yards and passed for 78 to lead the Chiefs, the No. 4 seed from Region 6-AAAA who occupied the same slot on the playoff bracket last year before making the long drive to beat South Aiken. Zyon Belle rushed for 86 yards and a touchdown, and Devin Montgomery ran for 56.
They led 21-6 before North Augusta mounted a tying rally behind Harrell, who entered the game just before halftime after Bradley Godwin, the Jackets' senior starter, left due to injury.
The tying score was a bizarre connection between Harrell and Jordan Wilburn, who scored three times and had 148 receiving yards.
Harrell took the snap from the Chiefs' 47 yard line and launched the ball down the sideline for Wilburn, who was stripped of the ball as he approached the goal line. Players from both sides piled up in the end zone, fighting for the football, before Wilburn emerged with it for the score.
North Myrtle Beach didn't buckle after that score, though, and made the plays down the stretch necessary to extend its season.
The Chiefs came back to Aiken County and did it again, picking up a first-round win a long way from home for the second year in a row — last year's team drove to South Aiken, a trip about 10 miles shorter than this year's, and dominated.
This wasn't nearly as leisurely of a trip, but it's still a happy ride home rather than four hours of reflecting on a season that's reached its end.
"Last year was a lot easier, I can tell you that. But we're young, man, and we're just trying to learn how to win in big games. Learn how to win," Reel said. "That right there is special, man. That's a special thing, man, when some young cats that have been put in some tough spots and are growing up on the fly – you know, this whole thing, you drive four hours, you stop, you pick each other up, and then you come back at it again. Man, I'm just really freaking happy for our kids right now. Really freaking happy."