By Justin Jarrett
Photo by Bob Sofaly
During the game Friday night, Whale Branch coach Jerry Hatcher was his ordinary self — animated and agitated with every minor mistake, even with his Warriors in control from the outset.
But after the Warriors wrapped up a thoroughly impressive 52-12 win over seventh-ranked Johnsonville in the first round of the SCHSL Class 1A playoffs, Hatcher relaxed and stated the obvious. The Warriors are as good as they want to be.
And on Friday night, it looked like they wanted to win it all.
Joseph Hicks and Jadon Grant each scored twice as Whale Branch ran the ball at will, and the Warriors locked down a dangerous Johnsonville offense, quickly turning a matchup of the sixth- and seventh-ranked teams in the state into a rout.
A blocked punt set up the first of two touchdown runs from Hicks, and Ray Pryor’s scoop-and-score on the Flashes’ next possession gave the Warriors a quick 14-0 lead.
Whale Branch’s powerful ground game took over from there, with quarterback Jaylen Reeves and running backs Grant and Hicks surging down the field behind a strong offensive line. Grant capped off one touchdown drive, Reeves another, and it was 28-0 just three minutes into the second quarter.
“It really brought our confidence up, coming out strong and actually executing what we wanted to do,” Hicks said. “The blocked punt, that was amazing. It really got our energy level up.”
Johnsonville showed flashes — both from speedy senior Quez Lewis — but they were few and far between thanks to a swarming Whale Branch defense. Lewis got loose on a slant and bolted to the end zone to get the Flashes on the board, and he followed Hicks’ second TD run with a 98-yard kickoff return for a score to give Johnsonville a glimmer of hope late in the first half, but the Flashes didn’t sniff the end zone in the second half.
Jaylen Roberts and Xavier Chaplin were consistently in the backfield making life difficult for Flashes quarterback Malik Shippy, and Hicks and the linebacking corps contained DaQuan Burroughs. Austin Stephens put the finishing touches on a dominant defensive performance with an interception that he returned to the end zone before it was called back for an unnecessary block in the back away from the play.
Clifton Major capped the scoring with a touchdown run, clinching the Warriors eighth straight win — the longest streak in program history — and setting up a showdown at Bamberg-Ehrhardt next Friday.
The Warriors and Red Raiders were region rivals in Class 2A before both moved to different Class 1A regions this season, and Whale Branch has a sour taste from its last trip to Bamberg for a 14-7 defeat last October.
“Last year we took a hard ‘L,’” Hicks said. “We shouldn’t have lost that game. We’re ready to play this team. We’re gonna come out next week and try to do the same thing.”
Above: Whale Branch’s Joseph Hicks gets tackled just shy of his first touchdown against the Johnsonville Flashes on Friday during the first-round 1A playoff game. The Warriors went on to win 52-12 and will travel to Bamberg-Ehrhardt on Friday for Round 2.