Abbeville

Abbeville running back Navi Marshall cuts the corner against Ninety Six during last Friday’s game. Marshall leads the Panthers in rushing and receiving yards.

It’s not often a team comes into Hite Stadium in Abbeville with a chance to clinch a region championship.

That’s the case this week, as Christ Church Episcopal, with a 3-0 Region 1-2A record, faces No. 1-ranked Abbeville (1-0 region). Christ Church has already played all region opponents except for Abbeville.

The Panthers, who had three non-region games to start the season, picked up their first region victory last week against Ninety Six. The Panthers (4-0 overall) have three region games remaining, so they can’t clinch the title in tonight’s contest, which starts at 7:30 p.m.

“Very few times have we played a team that can clinch a region championship in our backyard,” Abbeville coach Jamie Nickles said. “And we can’t clinch the region championship. It’s a strange season. It’s just weird.”

In addition to facing Christ Church (4-0 overall), Abbeville will travel to Crescent on Oct. 30 and then host Liberty in its final two region games.

The Cavaliers have an experienced and talented backfield with three-year starter Ryan Johnsen at quarterback and Grayson Klue at running back. Beattie Ashmore and B.J. Atkins are a couple of speedy receivers.

“They are good at every phase of the game,” Nickles said. “On offense, the quarterback is outstanding. He makes plays all over the field. They’ve got a receiving corps. Their running back just churns yards up.”

Ends Mason Johnstone and Chandler McMaster, and linebackers Locke Swent, Mason Goldsmith and Benji Horton, lead the Christ Church defense.

“On the defensive side, they are real physical,” Nickles said. “You want to play the best, and they are best in our region at this particular time. It’s definitely a challenge.”

Christ Church coach Quin Hatfield said his team must slow Abbeville’s successful running game in the A-Bone formation. The Panthers have outscored opponents 202-21 and are averaging nearly 290 yards per game on the ground.

“We have to make plays (on defense) so we can get the ball in the hands of our offensive weapons,” Hatfield said. “We have to play fast and physical, which is what we’ve been doing all year.”

Unlike recent years, the Panthers don’t have a main offensive weapon. They have a group of very experienced and talented running backs, including fullbacks J’Marion Burton and Matico Jackson, and wingbacks Navi Marshall and Tyrell Haddon. Marshall averages 11.8 yards per carry to lead the team. He also leads in receiving yards with 178.

Cruz Temple, who injured his hand in last week’s game, is a game-time decision, Nickles said. He and Luke Evans make up one of the state’s best linebacker duos.

“We’ve got to compete for four quarters and put ourselves in a position to win the game in the fourth quarter,” Hatfield said. “We have to attack and play physical, be disciplined, win the down and distance and put them behind the chains on early downs.”

Despite Abbeville’s success, Nickles said there are some things he wants his team to clean up.

“Penalties. One time we punted the ball with 10 men on the field,” Nickles said. “We were a little sloppy on our blocking. Defensively, we started good but we lost our gap integrity.”

Nickles said this game is critical because, during this COVID-related shortened season, only the top two teams from each region make the playoffs.

“What we do in the next couple of weeks will determine whether our season continues or not,” Nickles said. “We’re not looking back or looking ahead. We’re just in the grind, taking each day at a time.”

Contact staff writer Greg K. Deal at 864-943-5647 or follow on Twitter @IJDEAL.