Each day before practice, the Socastee girls basketball team is asked to look up at the banner hanging high on one of the gym walls.
Then again after practice — same drill.
Before games? Yep, look again.
The sign listing the program’s region championships has been untouched since the 2003 season, and coach Kelly Lewis reminds her players of it constantly. It’s become a rallying cry for a squad without a dominant player, without big-time scorers and lacking so much as what would be decried as a roster that includes players with decent playoff experience.
“I want it to be a constant reminder that there hasn’t been a region championship here in 15 years,” Lewis said. “They really, really have bought into it.”
On Friday evening, it showed.
The Braves defeated Carolina Forest 38-35 to retake sole possession of first place in the division with just three games remaining. If Socastee wins two of its last three, it would automatically earn the crown via tie-breakers, but if its latest game was any indication, the team isn’t planning on letting up just yet.
The Braves used a stifling defense throughout to hold the Panthers eight points below their season scoring average and more than 10 points below their previously low output in region play. That started with the defense of Carolina Forest’s leading scorer, junior forward Carly Skolsky, who finished with just a pair of free throws.
The Panthers did receive a boost from 5-foot-5 sophomore Reilly Ward, who connected on five 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 17 points. Her deep attempt to tie the game in the closing seconds bounced off the rim, however, and a tipped pass immediately after sealed the Socastee win.
The result was a celebration on the Socastee bench, courtesy of the players’ ability to grasp the importance of the victory.
“It would mean the world to me,” said senior Mercer Roberts, who led the Braves with 11 points. “To go 15 years and not win a region [title], that’s insane. This would be incredible for us.”
Much like the first region match-up, which the Braves also won, this game was a little about revenge.
The two teams met in November during the Sand & Hoops tournament at Socastee, and that time it was the Panthers who walked away with the victory.
“That was our tournament. They stole that from us," Roberts said. "Our mindset was we’ve got to steal the region from them. That’s what we did.”
Well, not quite yet, but the Braves are certainly close to preventing Carolina Forest from repeating as champs. After all, it was this time last year that coach Stacy Hughes' team, led by a talented trio of seniors, was capping off a perfect 10-0 run and getting ready to make a run to the third round of the state playoffs.
Those players are gone now, of course, and because of it, few believed the Panthers would be in the discussion this season.
“I knew the whole region was down, but after the Socastee preseason tournament I was optimistic," Hughes said. "I felt like we were really starting to come together as a team and we could do something.”
That something now will almost certainly have include holding onto second place in the region. In order to move back up to the top spot, Carolina Forest would have to win out and the Braves would have to lose two of three.
That second scenario doesn’t seem likely given how Socastee has played since mid-December. Since that time, Lewis’ team has gone 10-1 overall, with six of those wins coming in the most important part of the regular season.
The driving force of one long past, then, seems to be working just fine.