Five years ago, football along the Grand Strand included little to write home about.
Myrtle Beach and Loris both went 11-2 while advancing to the third round of the playoffs in 2014. They were the benchmark programs, but their overall impact was nowhere near enough to boost the area’s reputation.
Of the remaining teams in Horry County that season, only one more (Socastee) finished with a winning record. And as a whole, the nine varsity programs in the district finished below .500.
Times have changed.
Collectively, the local schools finished last season with one of their best falls in history. Everyone now knows about the district winning two of the five available state championships — as Myrtle Beach and Green Sea Floyds both made epic runs. However, it wasn’t just about the Seahawks and Trojans.
“To me, you just look at seven of the nine that made the playoffs. And [five] of the seven won a playoff game,” Carolina Forest coach Marc Morris said. “If you want to start judging yourself to the state, you look at the playoffs — that’s all that matters. That’s a huge statement.”
All told, led by the two title winners, Horry County notched 13 playoff victories, seven more than the previous season — and nine more than the aforementioned 2014 season.
You can’t discount what the impact of one district winning two state titles meant to the perception of the area as a whole. However, the improvement Horry County is really about success for teams who struggled in the not too distant past.
“Conway and Myrtle Beach have always had a great tradition in football. I’ve been fortunate to be a part of both of those programs and seen them firsthand,” said Myrtle Beach coach Mickey Wilson, who played at Conway in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Now, you have Carolina Forest and Loris and Aynor and North Myrtle Beach.”
Three of the programs he mentioned — Carolina Forest, Aynor and North Myrtle Beach — had losing records in 2014 and failed to win a playoff game. Last fall, all three won eight games despite having one or two games canceled due to the effects of mass flooding after Hurricane Florence. And after making the postseason, each of those teams also won at least one playoff game.
The overall rise is not simply a one-year fluke. In fact, it’s been building. In 2014, Horry County teams won 49.5 percent of their games — a number that’s essentially reflective of local teams’ games against teams from outside the area. The next year, that figure dipped to 48.1 percent. From there, though, it started moving gradually in the other direction. It was 51.5 percent in 2016, 55.8 percent in 2018 and 58.5 percent last fall (Of the canceled gamed due to the extended school closings, only four were against out-of-county opponents, and — on paper — two of them looked like easy wins for the Horry County teams.).
More importantly, if you believe Morris’ assessment that playoffs are the bigger indicator, the number of postseason victories increased steadily. There were four combined playoff wins in 2014, then five each of the next two seasons, six in 2017 and then last year’s modern-day county record of 13. All that in-season success, Conway coach Carlton Terry believes, has more to do with what’s happening between December and August. That was something only the established programs once utilized.
“Some of the smaller schools weren’t able to, for whatever reason, have a great offseason program,” Terry said. “Football now is year-round. … It’s a direct correlation to how you compete as a football team. Most of the schools in the county are doing things year-round to prepare for football season. That’s something other [pockets] of the state have been doing for the last 20 years. We’re playing catch-up.”
There are indications that Horry County is getting there. Last fall was one of just two occurrences in the 2010s in which one district earned two titles (Rock Hill Schools’ Northwestern and South Pointe each won championships in 2015). There was also the boost in playoff victories and overall record. And if that’s not enough, three of the top eight Class of 2020 recruits in the state according to 247Sports.com are here. Myrtle Beach quarterback Luke Doty (No. 2), Conway defensive lineman Tonka Hemingway (No. 4) and Carolina Forest quarterback Mason Garcia (No. 8) are all playing their home games here in Horry County.
Consider the recruiting boon an exclamation point of sorts for an area that is coming off its best collective season in recent memory and hoping to stay closer to that level than it was even five years back.
“We all know there is good football all over this state,” Morris said. “I don’t think they look at Horry County as being subpar anymore.”