Even though 20 years have passed since the last Aiken High School state football championship in 1992, the head coach of that squad, Doug Painter, says that team began its transformation to a champion even farther back.
In 1989, the Hornets lost 13-7 to Greer in the Class AAA championship game. The seniors from the 1992 team were freshmen then and had a chance to cut their teeth against a state runner-up team.
"A majority of the best players came up and practiced against the varsity during the four weeks of the playoffs," Painter, now the head coach at Saluda High School, said.
The team had its struggles after that, going 5-6 in 1990 and 6-5 in 1991 before moving into Class AAAA for the 1992 season. When it was time to make that transition, Painter said he and his colleagues knew they would need to plan their schedule carefully.
"We knew that the point system was important in AAAA," he said.
As a result, Painter put "Big 16" competitors Sumter and Spring Valley on the schedule after starting with Silver Bluff and Fairfield Central, which also gave him an idea how good that team could be. The Hornets lost two close games to the state powerhouses, which went on to play each other in the "Big 16" semifinals. Sumter won that game 21-14 and fell in the state finals to Gaffney 27-24.
"We knew it was good competition, and we lost both of those games 10-6," Painter said.
The strategy of scheduling against the biggest programs in the state is one current head coach Carey Johnson, the defensive coordinator under Painter in 1992, has carried over, among other things. Tonight's opponent, Blythewood, is one of this year's "Big 16," as are region foes Lexington and Dutch Fork.
"We still carry that philosophy over, and as a matter of fact, we carry a lot of philosophy over from that," Johnson said.
He said some of the practice methods have needed to be modified from that time, in part because of today's young people being of a different mindset. He said that today's "computer age" has encouraged kids to stay inside, while the players on the 1992 team wanted to be outside and compete.
That toughness made for some restless nights for Johnson during the 1992 season, especially.
"One of the biggest things I remember, being worried that we can't stop anyone," Johnson said. "That's how big the competition was out there."
The defense always stepped up on gameday, Johnson added, and Painter said that the team's tenacity paid off down in the stretch. He estimated that in six of the team's eight games, the Hornets trailed in the second half but managed to come away with a win.
"They had a good work ethic," Painter said. "Everything just kind of came together. They never quit."
After the losses to Spring Valley and Sumter evened the team's record at 2-2, the Hornets mowed through a region schedule that included Brookland-Cayce, Lexington, Midland Valley, Orangeburg-Wilkinson, North Augusta, Airport and South Aiken.
Some of the key players to that undefeated region run were defensive end Jerome Bean, running back Cedric Johnson and quarterback Marcus Glover. Painter said all of those players were "great high school players" but said that his team had no major college recruits, adding to the team's hardworking personality.
Aiken started the playoffs with a second straight game against crosstown rival South Aiken. The Hornets won the first matchup 21-7, but the T-Breds made the second game a nailbiter, with the Hornets coming away with a 22-19 win.
Then it was time to play Laurens in the quarterfinals, and Aiken secured another close win, this time a 28-23 victory. The next game, a 31-24 semifinal victory over Union, was the one that let Johnson know this team might have what it took to win a state title.
"When the clock hit zero against Union in the state semifinals ... that's when I knew we had a pretty good chance," he said.
Aiken went to Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia and took down Hartsville 21-14 for what is now called the Class AAAA, Division II state championship, capitalizing on all the lessons the seniors carried with them from the heartbreak of defeat in 1989.
Painter said he still teaches those lesson to his Saluda players to this day.
"Always use examples of good things in the past, even though it wasn't at Saluda," he said. "They get brought up occasionally."
Painter said he doesn't get a chance to catch up with the players from that team except for the rare conversation when he makes use of social media.
"I'm not a big Facebook person, but occasionally I'll get on there and contact a few of them and see what's going on," he said.
Johnson doesn't need the computer to keep in touch with his former players, especially Bean, a 1992 Shrine Bowl selection. Bean's son, Jordan McKevie, is playing for Johnson this season.
"I still communicate with a few of those players, especially those that are still close by," Johnson said.
With several of the 1992 Hornets still in the community and their children reaching high school age, maybe the next championship squad isn't far down the road for Johnson.
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University.
1992 Aiken Hornets Schedule
* Region 3-AAAA game
^ Class AAAA playoff game
• Aiken 7, Silver Bluff 3
• Aiken 28, Fairfield Central 7
• Spring Valley 10, Aiken 6
• Sumter 10, Aiken 6
• Aiken 33, Brookland-Cayce 14 *
• Aiken 23, Lexington 6 *
• Aiken 14, Midland Valley 8 *
• Aiken 34, Orangeburg-Wilkinson 12 *
• Aiken 31, North Augusta 12 *
• Aiken 21, Airport 13 *
• Aiken 21, South Aiken 7 *
• Aiken 22, South Aiken 19 ^
• Aiken 28, Laurens 23 ^
• Aiken 31, Union 24 ^
• Aiken 21, Hartsville 14 ^