AN INCREDIBLE RACE has shaped up in SCISA Region 1-3A that will certainly not be decided until the state championship game is played Nov. 20 at Orangeburg.
The top three teams in SCISA's Class 3A ranks all reside within that region, with Hammond in front and Heathwood Hall and Ben Lippen lurking.
The Skyhawks will be the favorite until someone knocks them off. Top-ranked Hammond has won the past three SCISA Class 3A state championships and remains undefeated this season.
But that doesn't mean it's time to sleep on Heathwood Hall and Ben Lippen.
The Highlanders, ranked No. 2 in SCISA Class 3A, are a half-game in front of Hammond in the region standings due to a scheduling quirk. Heathwood Hall (6-0, 2-0) has played two region games while Hammond (6-0, 1-0) opened its region slate with a thrilling 24-21 comeback victory against Ben Lippen last Friday night at Edens Stadium.
But Heathwood Hall will have a say in Hammond's hopes for another region title and state championship.
Coach Rip Blackstone's Highlanders own impressive wins against Ben Lippen (5-2) and Greenville's Christ Church (5-1), which competes in the S.C. High School League and has been in and out of the Class A rankings this season.
In the Ben Lippen win, Heathwood Hall showed its mettle by becoming the first team to beat the Falcons and by doing it on the road.
Ben Lippen's Joey Carter has 1,345 passing yards and 11 touchdowns this season. But it was Heathwood Hall, behind a brilliant game plan by defensive coordinator Brad Coleman, that pressured Carter with an array of blitzes to find a way to slow Ben Lippen's potent offense.
Heathwood Hall averages 25.2 points per game on offense, a figure that is plenty healthy even if it trails Hammond's 30.6 and Ben Lippen's 25.2.
But the Highlanders are stingy on defense and have shown a propensity to make plays when they are needed the most. Heathwood Hall has held opponents to score 13.3 points game while gaining 211 yards of total offense.
It's even more impressive that those statistics were compiled against a schedule that includes one game against at team that does not have a winning record.
Senior linebacker Walker Sojourner is a key cog in the Highlanders defense. He has 71 tackles and eight sacks to lead Heathwood Hall in both categories.
Heathwood Hall also has 11 interceptions from Chris Barton (four), Alec Gregg (three), Cole Fowble (two) and Morgan Whalen (two).
While Ben Lippen has dropped games to Hammond and Heathwood Hall, it would be foolish to say the Falcons can't win it all come playoff time.
The Falcons have played a difficult schedule and have fared very well. Their five wins include road victories against SCHSL teams Bishop England and Lewisville.
Ben Lippen has allowed 99 points in seven games, an average of 16.5 per outing.
On Friday, it took 10 points late in the fourth quarter for Hammond to avoid a second consecutive loss to Ben Lippen.
The Falcons fell one win short of a state championship game date with Hammond last season. Even though Ben Lippen will likely have to play on the road in the playoffs this season (due to its third-place standing in the region), it is certainly capable of getting to the final this time.
Barring any upsets, the championship of this region will be decided Oct. 23 when rivals Heathwood Hall and Hammond meet at Edens Stadium.
But that's not when the final answer will arrive.
The SCISA playoffs begin Nov. 6 with Hammond and Heathwood Hall likely to have home games in the eight-team bracket.
There's a good chance Hammond, Heathwood Hall and Ben Lippen will have three of the four slots in the semifinals, which means at least one will make the final.
Given how they've played so far, there's an even better chance two of these teams will meet for the state championship at S.C. State's Oliver C. Dawson Stadium on Nov. 20.