Matt Reel hadn’t prepared a consolation speech.
But with his players kneeling around him Friday after their 31-12 loss to Hartsville in the second round of the 4A playoffs, the North Myrtle Beach coach praised his 25 seniors, a group that had seen the program develop into a contender capable of reaching the state championship game last year and upsetting a No. 1 seed in the first round of the playoffs this fall.
“It’d be impossible, truly, to put down on pen and paper what they’ve meant to this program over the last four years,” said Reel, who took the head coaching job in 2017 after serving as the team’s offensive coordinator. “Changing just the outlook of our program. Changing what’s expected of our program every year. When we first got here, there was no expectations. … If you had a winning season, that was a plus. If you didn’t, it was OK. As long as you treated the kids right, that’s all that mattered. That’s changed. Our kids, these seniors have been a big part of that.”
North Myrtle Beach (5-5) certainly had reason to be confident heading into Friday’s game. Despite Hartsville being favored, the Chiefs were coming off a week where they were the lone No. 5 seed in the state to advance in the playoffs (they beat No. 1 May River 27-7).
Yet the Chiefs knew they would face a steady attack from the Hartsville running back tandem of J’Shawn Anderson and Carmello McDaniel.
The game remained scoreless through most of the opening quarter, but Hartsville struck first with a 4-yard touchdown run from Anderson. Then McDaniel found the end zone with a 7-yard scamper to give the Red Foxes a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
North Myrtle began to show some life in the second quarter, forcing a fumble and then finishing a drive with a 27-yard touchdown pass from Cam Freeman to Chandler McCall. However, the PAT attempt failed, putting the score at 14-6 with 7:31 left in the half.
On the next Hartsville drive, the Chiefs again recovered a fumble and drove into Hartsville territory, but kicker Preston Todd missed a 35-yard field goal attempt.
Hartsville responded with another scoring drive, this one ending with a 9-yard touchdown from McDaniel, who would finish the night with 142 yards and three TDs.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Chiefs' returner McCall fumbled the ball and Hartsville recovered. As time expired, Red Foxes kicker Jahleel Lewis booted a 23-yard field goal to give Hartsville a 24-6 lead at the break.
The Chiefs’ offense continued to struggle in the second half — they finished the game with just 182 yards of total offense to Hartsville’s 399 — and McDaniel seemed to put the game away with a 48-yard touchdown run at the 4:29 mark of the third quarter.
But North Myrtle responded, getting an 8-yard touchdown pass from Freeman to Trace Hall early in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs looked like they might narrow the gap further when they recovered Hartsville’s fourth fumble of the night at the Red Foxes’ 17 with 9:29 left in the game.
The Chiefs got all the way to the 6 yard line, but the drive ultimately ended in an interception.
“We just didn’t make it work,” Reel said. “We had some opportunities. Our defense was very favorable as far as the turnover game goes for us tonight. We just didn’t do enough offensively to finish the thing off.”
Despite the outcome, Reel credited his players for their effort, particularly his seniors.
“Our kids always show up,” Reel said. “They always play hard. That’s never in doubt. It’s been a tough year, man, for a lot of different reasons. But nevertheless, [I’m] always proud of them, proud of the kids that they are, proud of how they carry themselves … They’re top-notch kids.”