Matt Reel sighed more than once when talking about his team during the preseason.
He rolled his eyes a few times.
And he said over and over that he just kind of wished for the best.
On paper, everything pointed to North Myrtle Beach struggling in its season opener. Yet, Reel, the third-year head coach who is already the third-winningest in program history, watched as the system he helped create wore down one of the best defensive lines in the state and his ball-hawking defense shut down an inexperienced Class 5A program.
During much of the second half of the Chiefs’ 24-7 victory over Conway to kick off 2019, it was the Tigers who were showing a defeated attitude.
“When I saw their guys cramping and worn down and I saw our guys sprinting to the line, that confidence in me made me [think] ‘We’re good,’” Reel said.
When he said “their guys,” he was specifically referring to the Tigers’ defensive line, consisting of South Carolina commitment Tonka Hemingway, along with Tate Finklea, Tim Shelton and Andy Jordan, as well as a handful of subs who were called upon Friday to try to make something happen.
By all accounts, the group kept Conway in the game much longer than it could have, especially given the advantage that North Myrtle Beach had on the other side of the ball.
The Chiefs held the ball for 31-plus minutes of the 48-minute game. They ran 63 offensive plays compared to the Tigers’ 33. And they put up 296 total yards of offense versus 125 for Conway.
Reel’s squad — which he served as the offensive coordinator before taking over the head coaching duties prior to the 2017 season — has run similarly lopsided games like that in the past.
But Friday was different. In addition to the star-studded defensive line it was the playing, North Myrtle Beach was also without starting skill position players Messiah Gore and Zyon Bell and starting center Hayden Best.
In their place, first-time center Alex McGillicuddy was perfect throughout the evening snapping into the shotgun formation despite taking over the position on Wednesday, first-year starting quarterback Ramsey Lewis rushed for 125 yards (and threw for another 72 - mostly to Malik Livingston) and Devin Montgomery chipped in another 48 yards on the ground. North Myrtle Beach was called for only four penalties, and it didn’t turn the ball over once.
It was further evidence of the next-man-up philosophy, a product of program building from the lower levels.
“We made a statement,” Lewis said before commenting on some of the team’s preseason struggles. “At first, people looked at the Carolina Forest scrimmage and the 27-2 [final score] and said ‘They can’t do it.’ We showed the state what we can really do.
“We could tell at the end of the game they were huffing and puffing. They were tired. That’s when we decided to step on their throat - run the ball, run the ball, run the ball.”
Meanwhile, the Conway offense that had coach Carlton Terry feeling better than he did a year ago about it never really got anything going.
The Tigers had just two plays that gained more than 10 yards or more, including the 68-yard Xavier Kinlaw catch and score at the end of the first quarter. But that was about it.
Conway had seven three-and-outs and Hemingway was asked to punt eight times.
“We’ve got to do some soul-searching and get better on offense,” Terry said. “There were some bright spots on defense. We did some really good things. But they continued to hammer and hammer and eventually they cracked our armor.”
In doing so, the Chiefs showed themselves something they desperately needed to see.
Even though they held a Top 10 preseason ranking in Class 4A from the statewide media, even though Lewis and Montgomery and plenty of other returning talent was back in uniform, there was a doubt of keeping up what this team had done in Reel’s first two seasons.
Reassurance came in the form of the 21st victory in the last 25 overall games.
And proof of the program’s depth came earlier than most expected in 2019.
“We try to build ourselves on certain things — toughness, mental toughness, physicality, being the team that’s in the best shape when we play,” Reel said. “Now, early in the year, those things are very evident to me. Having those older guys take hold of what we’ve been doing for the last three years, that’s huge.”