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By CHRIS COX
The Hilton Head Christian Academy football players hear the chatter. They know who awaits on the other side of the SCISAA Class 2-A playoff bracket.
That would be their Rebel friends from up Highway 278 at Thomas Heyward Academy. The same Rebels who saw their unbeaten streak end last month at the hands of the Eagles.
"They hear it all the time," coach Tommy Lewis said. "But at the same time, I think we have a very mature team. Again, they understand that what everybody else says doesn't mean anything once you get out on the field.
"You've got to go play and prove that you belong in that state championship game."
Hilton Head Christian will get its shot to prove they belong tonight, when the Eagles play host to a Florence Christian team that won the program's first playoff game a week ago against Palmetto Christian.
The winner will move on to next Saturday's state championship game at Benedict's Charlie W. Johnson Stadium in Columbia. For Hilton Head Christian, it would be their sixth appearance in the last seven years.
"They're very excited," Lewis said. "At the same time, I think we're very realistic to know that Florence Christian is a good team. They're coming down here with quote-unquote ill intentions. So we need to be ready to play."
The young history between the two teams bodes well for Hilton Head Christian (10-1). The Eagles are 3-0 lifetime against Florence Christian (7-3), including a 35-22 decision last year and a 48-28 triumph in the first round of the playoffs two seasons ago.
"It's nice to know as a program that you have that kind of foundation or what have you, but as far as (tonight's) game, it doesn't mean a whole lot," Lewis said.
The Eagles' familiarity with Florence Christian goes far beyond the previous meetings. For the second straight week, Hilton Head Christian will line up against a wishbone-type offense after taking on Calhoun Academy's option attack a week ago.
Florence Christian is more power-oriented, Lewis said, but still will attack the Eagles' front seven in much the same way. Running back Gordon Washington leads the way, as he racked up 240 yards and five scores a week ago and has 454 rushing yards over the last two weeks, according to the Florence Morning News.
"When you can string a few games together that kind of feature the same types of offenses it definitely helps," Lewis said.
Tackle Will McCutchen highlighted the Eagles' strong defense a week ago with 13 tackles and two stops for loss while Reed Shindell chipped in eight stops, two for loss and a sack. They helped hold Calhoun Academy to three first-half first downs and shut out the Cavaliers until the fourth quarter.
They'll be joined on the defensive side by linebacker and running back Tyler Chisholm, who has been cleared to return to duties after sitting out with a bruised clavicle. He'll also start in the backfield, where DeAngelo Clark and Brad Meccariello had been carrying the load the past two weeks.
"We've taken care of easing him back into it in practice," Lewis said of Chisholm. "He's going to start."
Chisholm will return, but the Eagles still will be without a pair of receivers who have been lost over the past three weeks, C.J. Evanofski and Brandon Qualls. Evanofski went down in the Palmetto Christian game after breaking his fibula in two places while Qualls was lost last week with a torn ACL and meniscus.
Florence Christian (7-3) at Hilton Head Christian (10-1), 7 p.m.
Last meeting: HHCA 35, FCA 22 (2011)
The skinny: The winner advances to next weekend's SCISAA Class 2-A state title game, where Hilton Head Christian has appeared in five of the last six years. The Eagles have won 10 straight since a season-opening defeat, while FCA captured the program's first playoff win a week ago against Palmetto Christian.
Players to watch: HHCA RB Tyler Chisholm (798 rushing yards, nine TDs) returns after missing the last two weeks with a bruised clavicle. FCA RB Gordon Washington rushed for five touchdows a week ago, and the Eagles will look to LBs Will McCutchen (108 tackles, 7 TFL) and Clay Oliver (91 tackles, 9 TFL) to bring him down.
Keys to the game: Shutting down FCA's ground attack is pivotal for the Eagles, who have been successful against the run most of this season. Easing Chisholm back into things will be critical, too, as a ball-control offense will help keep HHCA's defense fresh as they take on the clock-eating, power running game of Florence Christian.