SUMTER | After the Sumter High School football team lost to defending 4A state champion A.C. Flora 13-0 in its second game of the season two weeks ago, there were rumblings that perhaps the Gamecocks had taken a step back from the team that played for the 5A lower state title last season.
For SHS head coach Mark Barnes, that kind of talk may have been premature.
Sumter ran for 464 yards on the ground against Carolina Forest on Friday at Sumter Memorial Stadium, outscoring the Panthers 22-0 in the second half to break open a close game and roll to a 36-7 victory.
"It was a great win for us tonight," Barnes said after his team improved to 2-1 on the season. "I think the demise of Sumter football may have been slightly overrated. We're a lot better football team than people thought we were."
After opening the season with a 55-18 triumph over Sumter School District rival Lakewood, the Gamecocks picked up the game against Flora in the middle of the week after both teams lost games due to coronavirus. SHS had little time to prepare for that contest, and Barnes said that hurt.
"It helps when you've got film, you can game plan, and you don't have to do things on the fly," he said.
Sumter was more than ready for CFHS, which fell to 2-2 on the season. It had 21 first downs and averaged 10 yards per carry as it had 46 rushes. The Gamecocks had 17 runs of 10 yards or more, with eight of those going for at least 22 yards.
SHS only had one player go over 100 yards rushing, that being senior running back Keion Brown. He had 13 carries for 138 yards and two touchdowns with six of those totes going for at least 10 yards. Junior running back Zyeir Gamble had 96 yards and two scores on 10 carries, most of them coming out of the Wildcat near the goal line in Sumter's "heavy" package.
Jeremiah Horace, another junior running back, had 85 yards on 10 carries, most of those coming in the fourth quarter. Junior wide receiver Jordan Heyward had 79 yards on just two carries, both on reverses, and senior running back Jabari Tiller had 41 yards on six carries.
"We wanted to come out and run the option tonight, and we wanted to establish the dive, and we wanted to pitch when we needed to pitch," Barnes said, I thought we did a good job with all of that."
Despite all of that, Sumter only led 14-7 at halftime. It received the second-half kickoff, however, and used that to set the tone for the remainder of the contest.
After being stopped for no gain on its first play of the second half, quarterback Ryan McCants completed an 11-yard pass to senior wide receiver Ahkeim Hosley Jr. for a first down at the Gamecock 48-yard line. McCants followed with an option pitch to Gamble that went 37 yards to Carolina Forest 15. After a 12-yard run by Brown, Gamble scored his third TD from three yards out to make it 20-7 with 9:53 left in the third quarter.
The Panthers didn't roll over at that point though. Junior Andrew Buffkin returned the ensuing kickoff 37 yards to the SHS 42. Junior quarterback Scott Saylor completed a 15-yard pass to junior wide receiver Anthony Aponte and a 14-yarder to junior wide receiver Nathan Schuessler to give CFHS a first down at the 11.
Senior running back Luke Janack gained a yard before Saylor threw and incompletion to set up third down and nine yards to go. Carolina Forest did the option pitch to Janack to the short side of the field for five yards, setting fourth and four. The Panthers came back with the same play, and Janack fought for the yardage but was finally pulled down at the 2, a yard short of the first down.
"The game really turned there when they scored on their first drive," said CFHS head coach Marc Morris. "It was 20-7, and we drove down to the (2)-yard line, and we didn't get that first down right there. We punch it in right there, it's 20-14 and it's a different ball game."
Not only did Carolina Forest not score, but Sumter came through with a 98-yard scoring drive. On third and five from the 7, the Gamecocks ran the option reverse to Heyward for the second time, and it went for 49 yards to the Panthers 44.
"That was a good call on the reverse down there," Morris said. That was a big play. We had them third and (five). That was a big play by them."
SHS needed four more plays to get in the end zone, the final one being a 22-yard run by Brown that made it 26-7 with 1:52 left in the third.
"They were down there and we stopped them and we go 98," Barnes said. "That was the turning point in the game."
Sumter scored once more in the third quarter when Hosley recovered a fumble in the end zone. Its final points came on a 20-yard field goal by junior placekicker Judah Keaton in the fourth quarter.
The Gamecock defense had another strong outing, limiting CFHS to 213 yards of total offense. Carolina Forest finished with 65 yards rushing, all of them coming in the first half.
"Our defense did a good job tonight.," said Barnes, whose team had 10 tackles for loss. "I've known Marc a long time, and they run the counter as good as anyone I know. We struggled with it early, and then we got better as the game went along.
"We blitzed them some, we played man-to-man coverage. We gave a lot, but we never really broke. When we had a chance to get off the field, we got off the field."
The Panthers moved the ball well each of their first three possessions of the game. They took the opening kickoff and got a first down at the Sumter 23 on the legs of Janack and 25 penalty yards against Sumter. However, the threat came to an end when Saylor was intercepted by junior cornerback Nate Butler at the 4. Butler returned the first of his two interceptions to the 24 to set the Gamecocks up for an 8-play, 76-yard drive. Brown picked up the final 32 on a scoring run to make it 6-0 with 3:30 left in the first quarter.
The Panthers scored in just two plays, the final one being a 69-yard pass play that was very odd. Saylor threw a screen pass to Aponte, who appeared to be down after he was grabbed from behind and flung around by an SHS defender. However, Aponte landed on top of the Gamecock defender and never touched the ground. He popped up and rand down the Carolina Forest sideline for the TD. Sophomore placekicker JJ Chadick added the extra point to give CFHS its only lead at 7-6 with 2:40 to go in the first quarter.
SHS got as close as the Panthers 12 on its ensuing possession before Keaton missed a 37-yard field goal attempt.
Carolina Forest used runs of 16 and 11 yards by junior running back Bryson Johnson and a 16-yard completion from Saylor to senior wide receiver Tmars McCallum for a first down at the Sumter 30. However, Johnson was dropped in the backfield for a 1-yard loss and Saylor was sacked for an 8-yard loss by safety Chris Ramirez and middle linebacker Terrion Burgess. CFHS turned the ball over on downs at the 36.
SHS ended up scoring just before halftime following the stop, with Gamble going in from three yards out with 49 seconds remaining. He then ran for the 2-point conversion to make it 14-7.
While the Gamecocks and the Panthers are both members of Region VI-5A, this game likely won't count as a region contest. The schools are scheduled to play on Oct. 15 in Myrtle Beach in the originally scheduled game. That will count as the region contest as long as it is played. Region VI decided to have its five schools play each other twice this season because of the pandemic.
Morris is not discouraged despite the .500 record.
"The kids here tonight fought hard, and we'll keep getting better," said Morris, who was missing some players due to COVID-19. "We've got a lot to learn. The kids are growing up every day, growing up in front of us. With what we've got going on down the road, we'll see this guys again and hopefully we'll play a little better, and we get to play at our place too.
"We've got a lot of improving to do, but I thought the kids played hard tonight and kept battling throughout the night, and we just have to keep getting better."
Bryson Johnson had nine carries for 55 yards, while Saylor completed 10 of 18 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown against two interceptions.