Basketball

Vann Pennell says he’s the most competitive person walking the halls of St. James High School.

And the man charged with leading the Sharks’ athletics programs, Billy Hurston, never minces words about his optimism for the future.

Together, they’re hoping to blend those characteristics in finding a basketball coach who can deliver a whole bunch of both.

The St. James’ principal and his athletics director are primed to fire up the most important leg of the search for a person capable of not only coaching the boys hoops squad, but getting it to a place where it is winning unlike ever before. Through 16 seasons on the court, winning campaigns have been rare. Hurston and Pennell believe it’s time to change that.

It’s time to bring in someone who can create a contender.

“We’re a 5A school. Not to knock smaller schools, but when you’re playing the big boys — that’s about as high as you can go in South Carolina — we want someone who has been a head coach and has proved he can lead a program,” Hurston said this week. “I seriously doubt we’ll interview anyone who hasn’t been a head coach for four-five years or at least been a [top-level] assistant coach.”

The application deadline for the boys basketball opening through Horry County Schools was Thursday. St. James will receive the district-approved candidates sometime early next week, at which point it will begin sifting through what is expected to be a hefty stack of resumes. Pennell and Hurston will set up five-to-eight initial interviews and then cut the list to three finalists for secondary meetings.

The hope is to have a name ready to present back to Horry County Schools for full approval (if necessary) for the May 20 board meeting. 

The desired end game is for St. James to find the type of person who can build a program out of one that has had a handful of solid seasons but mostly failed to produce high-quality results on the court.

St. James’ best season came in 2014-2015 under Monty Carr. Behind the likes of Jackson Hurston (Billy’s son), Haywood Brandon, Garrett Mullis, Jordan Fields and Zach Werba, the team won 18 games and advanced to the third round of the Class 3A playoffs

Before and after, it has more often than not been a struggle, one that has resulted in 10 losing seasons in 16 years.

Carr, the school’s first coach, won 150 games between 2003-2016, an average of 11 victories per season. After he departed for an assistant principal job at Forestbrook Middle in 2016, St. James went with Jeremy Heinhold. In his three seasons, the Sharks were 20-51 overall and 3-23 in region play.

Seven of the team’s losses came by six points or less, but it was clear no one was interested in consolation prizes. Within weeks of the conclusion of the season, the school announced it was relieving Heinhold of his duties and starting the process of finding someone else.

Pennell has been ultra-complimentary of Heinhold publicly, even admitting that he previously tried to hire him for another job back in North Carolina several years back.

However, all involved this move also isn’t happening in a vacuum.

There is added pressure from the struggles on the back side of school property, where the Sharks’ football stadium rests. There, in 15 varsity seasons, the Sharks have put together just one winning record and frequently missed the postseason.

A myriad of reasons have aided in those struggles, maybe no more than the turnover.

The school is on its fifth football coach, and the lot of them have won just 25 percent of their overall games. Even though Tommy Norwood has the pedigree to trend the team upward, so, too, did Joey Price before him, Robby Brown before him or Mark Fischer before him. All four of those men have held the title since the spring of 2014.

Combined with the hoops hardships, frankly, the lack of wins in what can be considered just about any high school’s top two perceived sports has been difficult to navigate.

“That’s what hurt us with football was the consistency,” Pennell said. “We have some kids who have come through here who had four coaches in four [calendar] years. That’s not good, and we all know that. Basketball, it’s about finding a consistent coach to come here and build with the recreational league and all the way through. … We need the right person to come in here and give us that consistency.”

It’s something that the Sharks’ baseball, softball and girls golf teams have exceeded, as each of those three have won state championships in the relatively brief lifespan of the school. But getting basketball (or football, for that matter) to the point of title contenders is easier said than done, and it led Pennell and Hurston to the here and now.

To their credit, they not only allowed the process time to develop - the announced in late February that Heinhold would not return but only posted the job two weeks back in hopes of building interest - they are also going into it with as wide of a reach as possible. The job was listed both alongside a full-time teaching position and as a supplemental-only job. The latter allows them to consider the two in-house candidates they believe will apply an opportunity, as well as early retirees from other areas who have had success and still plenty left in the tank. Essentially, they’re considering everyone with solid credentials without asking anyone specifically to apply.

So far, Huston has received preliminary resumes or indications of an application from current Horry County employees, coaches from around South Carolina and others from out-of-state.

They’re willing to look at different personalities.

At the same time, Huston said he’s looking for someone who can accomplish what Dan D’Antoni did a few miles to the north at Socastee from the mid-70s through 2005. Hurston was there as an assistant coach for much of arguably the best stretch of any Horry County boys basketball team.

“We’re the same make-up as Socastee,” Hurston said. “[The Braves] won 13 region champs and they’d always say ‘There’s no way you’re going to do it again.’ Basketball is a bit different than football. You can develop basketball players. You can’t grow 6-5, 260-pound lineman. But you can get kids in the gym and develop kids with really good skills. You just need to get one or two that are very skilled and can lead.”

And, hopefully for St. James’ sake, the right person to lead the players.

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