Neither Sumter nor Socastee could find their high gear during the Braves' home opener Friday night, but the Gamecocks still managed to drive down the field a bit more successfully than the Braves, winning 24-7.
Both coaches praised their defenses but said they needed to do better on offense.
“We didn’t play very well offensively, obviously, we had way too many penalties," Sumter coach Mark Barnes said. "You expect some of that early, but not as many as we had."
Both teams’ first possession ended in a turnover on downs, and both teams ended their second drives with punts.
Near the end of the first quarter, Socastee fumbled a punt attempt on fourth down. The Braves recovered the ball, but gave Sumter great field position.
Sumter took the ball on Socastee’s 24-yard line, and Gamecocks running back Nathan Harris-Waynick eventually put Sumter on the board first with a two-yard touchdown run at the top of the second quarter. Then his teammate Jehu McCray kicked a 42-yard field goal to put Sumter up 10-0 with five minutes left in the half.
But before the half ended, the Braves' Israel Lewis intercepted Sumter quarterback Hayden Vasquez, running the ball 98 yards for a touchdown. The first half ended with Sumter leading 10-7.
“I felt the defense played phenomenal,” said Socastee Head Coach Ben Hampton, a former Coastal Carolina football player who took over the Socastee team this year after going 42-21 over five seasons at North Rowan, North Carolina. “Other than a couple untimely personal fouls, I thought they played lights-out. They did everything we asked them to do. We asked them to get turnovers, they got turnovers. We asked them to score, they scored. We asked them to get us the ball back, and they did.”
In the third quarter, Socastee was unable to put points on the board, but after the Gamecocks started their first drive of the half from their own 31, they leaned heavily on Nathan Harris-Waynick, who eventually pounded the ball into the end zone for the only score of the third quarter, putting Sumter up 17-7.
And in the fourth quarter, Sumter again gave the ball to Harris-Waynick, who ran the ball in to put Sumter up 24-7.
“Nathan did well when he had an opportunity to run the ball,” Barnes said. “He’s a big physical dude. He runs with an attitude about him. That’s what we love about him.”
Halfway through the fourth quarter, one of Sumter’s players was ejected for targeting after hitting quarterback and ball-carrier Rocco Wojcik as he sprinted toward the sidelines. Socastee still had to punt.
With one minute left, Sumter’s McCray tried for another 42-yard field goal but didn’t make it.
Despite the loss, Hampton praised his team.
“We’re family over everything,” he said. “We expect to be a unit and we’re not going to point fingers. We’ll go back to work on Monday and get better. … The offense has got to get to where the defense is.”
While the Gamecocks took full advantage of Harris-Waynick’s running ability, the team dropped some passes.
“They did a good job defensively,” Barnes said. “We couldn’t get over top of them with the pass game. We did, early, and dropped three or four balls in the first half. Second half, we thought we played a lot better.”
Whether there would be a season at all was in doubt months ago, and while COVID-19 forced South Carolina high schools to limit football practice, neither coach said it was a determining factor in their performance.
“Everybody’s in the same boat, nobody had spring ball,” Hampton said. “Different school systems had different regulations as far as what they could do in the summer, but at the end of the day, we’re accountable for having the kids ready, and offensively, we weren’t there tonight.”
Added Barnes, “It’s like I told our players, three months ago, we’d have killed to be right here, tonight, ‘cause we didn’t think we would have an opportunity to play this year, so we’re happy and pleased with a win and just hope we can get six more of them.”
Next week, Sumter will head to Rock Hill and Socastee will play region rival St. James.
While the Braves aren’t expected to be the front-runner in region VI-5A (they went 1-8 last year, won no region games and got shut out four times) the seven points they put on the board Friday night was better than their average of six points a game in the previous season.
“I’m pleased with the effort our guys gave, but our execution’s got to be a little bit better,” Hampton said. “We’re going to hold them to a high standard. We’re going to raise the bar, we’ll continue to raise the bar every week and they’re either going to rise to the challenge or we’re going to find somebody else.”