KELLEYTOWN, S.C. – He could laugh about it afterwards, albeit quietly, but Hartsville High coach Jeff Calabrese knew his team dodged a proverbial bullet against South Aiken on Friday.

Or rather four to be exact.

Despite finishing the game with four turnovers, the Red Fox defense rose to the occasion in the second half by shutting out South Aiken in a 28-16 victory at Kelleytown Stadium in the opening game of the 4A state playoffs.

“South Aiken has been snake-bitten all year,” Calabrese said. “They’ve got a really good football team; they just couldn’t find a way to win a lot of games. Giving them four gifts like that in a playoff game is kind of scary. But our kids found a way to win, and you gotta give them credit for finding a way – no matter how ugly or pretty, you advance to another round.”

Hartsville improved to 8-3 on the season with its fifth straight victory and now travels to Beaufort next Friday at 7:30 p.m. The Eagles are just 4-5 on the year, but finished 3-0 in Region 7-4A and earned a first-round bye.

The Red Foxes will likely need a similar defensive effort like the one they got against the Thoroughbreds. South Aiken’s scores were set up by a long first-quarter punt that changed field position and a screen pass in the second quarter that found its way to the end zone.

Otherwise, HHS didn’t give up a lot as it held SA to less than 100 yards rushing and less than 175 yards passing. The Red Foxes held the Thoroughbreds to 18 yards of offense in the third quarter 80 in the fourth.

“They hit us on a couple plays,” Calabrese said. “It wasn’t like we were playing bad defense, we were just giving up points. Offense put them in a bad hole I think early in the first quarter, but really we were playing good defense and I think finding a way to play a great second half certainly helped.”

Hartsville also got a big night on the ground from quarterback Owen Taylor. The junior carried the ball 18 times for 124 yards including a 6-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. He also found Tate Hawkins for a 39-yard scoring strike in the second quarter that put the Red Foxes up 14-7 at the time.

But SA quarterback E.J. Hickson found Jonathan Burns on a 47-yard screen play that resulted in a TD on the next drive. Then the first of Hartsville’s turnovers came on a batted interception that set the Thoroughbreds up at the HHS 42-yard line.

They cashed in with a 25-yard field goal by Ethan Youman to take a 16-14 lead into the break.

But it was all Hartsville afterwards. Despite two more fumbles in the third quarter (and a third that was negated by a penalty), the Red Foxes went back up for good on Darian McMillan’s 1-yard run into the end zone with 1:25 left in the third quarter.

The defense did its part in the final stanza – stopping the Thoroughbreds on a fourth-down play at the Red Fox 27 and again on another drive that stalled at midfield. Dariyan Pendergrass put the game away moments later on a 48-yard run to paydirt. He finished with 82 yards on the ground.

“They did a really good job defensively,” Calabrese said. “They showed something they hadn’t really done all year, kind of gave us a curveball. Then we lost two offensive linemen throughout the game, so it was a big adjustment for us. We were just missing on some things, and that comes with experience.”

Hickson threw for 164 yards to lead South Aiken, and junior linebacker Tracey Gamble had a big night after recovering two of Hartsville’s fumbles and coming away with the pick.

SA 7 9 0 0 – 16

H 7 7 8 6 – 28

FIRST QUARTER

SA – Jesse Sanders 6 run (Ethan Youman kick), 6:32.

H – Owen Taylor 6 run (Chase Elsessler kick), 0:53.

SECOND QUARTER

H – Tate Hawkins 39 pass from Owen Taylor (Elsessler kick), 7:21.

SA – Jonathan Burns 47 pass from E.J. Hickson (Youman kick failed), 5:20.

SA – Youman 25 FG, 0:25.

THIRD QUARTER

H – Darian McMillan 1 run (Taylor run), 1:25.

FOURTH QUARTER

H – Dariyan Pendergrass 48 run (Taylor run failed), 1:17.

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING – SA: Nequel Martin 16-74; E.J. Hickson 6-(-1); Jesse Sanders 1-6, TD. H: Owen Taylor 18-124, TD; Dariyan Pendergrass 8-82, TD; Darian McMillan 10-62, TD; J’Shawn Anderson 7-18.

PASSING – SA: E.J. Hickson 15-34-164, TD; Jonathan Burns 0-1-0. H: Owen Taylor 4-9-86, TD, INT.

RECEIVING – SA: Jesse Sanders 3-55; Jonathan Burns 1-47, TD; Nequel Martin 1-14; Dallas McKeever 6-11; Devionne Burnett 2-9; Ryan Mayes 1-10. H: Tate Hawkins 1-39, TD; J’Shawn Anderson 1-29; Roddi Morris 1-15; Dariyan Pendergrass 1-3.

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