Believe it or not, all games are not created equally.
Some fixtures are merely scheduled out of curiosity, coaches wanting to see where their team matches up against top notch competition. On other occasions, there just happened to be a hole in the schedule that needed filling, and a team with a similar need of an opponent stepped to the plate.
Then there are those annual non-region tilts matching longtime rivals, games that count in terms of bragging rights but very little in the overall landscape of either team’s season.
But this Friday night, things truly become real for Grand Strand area football teams. With the start of region play, the stretch run to the playoffs has begun.
Certainly, the perks of winning your league are immense: higher seeding, more opportunities to play at home and a better chance at claiming a state title.
Merely being a part of the postseason dance holds significance as well, though. By virtue of reclassification by the S.C. High School League, four teams from each conference will qualify for the playoffs.
Still, each game is important, and any slip up can be costly.
Here is a region outlook for league with a Grand Strand squad in them:
Favorite: Sumter; having won what previously was Region VI-4A, the Gamecocks certainly have to be the favorite to repeat as league champions. Following a loss to Ridge View in its season opener, Sumter has rattled off four consecutive victories, each of them being by no less than two touchdowns. During the recent win streak, it has given up more than 20 points once.
Next in line: Carolina Forest; after Sumter, teams in the league will tend to beat each other up due to being so evenly matched. Before losing running back Dyverse Simmons, the Panthers were a viable threat to the top spot in Region VI-5A … and in essence, they still have a chance based on the smash mouth approach of head coach Marc Morris. The Carolina Forest defense has also been awesome, holding 4 of its 5 opponents under 20 points, including two shutouts.
Dark horse: South Florence; after losses to a pair of Class 4A foes, the Bruins have rebounded to win three in a row coming into Region VI-5A play. That competition doesn’t hold a candle to what it will face in coming weeks, though, with games at Sumter and Carolina Forest to begin the conference slate.
Most anticipated game: Sumter at Carolina Forest (Oct. 14)
Player to watch: Rodney Pitts, Sumter; the Gamecocks’ senior running back has 770 yards and 16 touchdowns through five games.
Newcomers: Marlboro County
Departures: Georgetown, Lake City
Favorite: Myrtle Beach; largely carried by a stifling defense, the Seahawks ascended at one point to No. 1 in Class 4A. However, some struggles offensively have some questioning the vulnerability of this team, particularly with North Myrtle Beach coming in Friday night for a clash of undefeated teams.
Next in line: North Myrtle Beach; though not the biggest team, the Chiefs are among the quickest teams in the state, and have also proven to pack quite the punch. To this point, North Myrtle Beach has yet to yield 14 points to any opponent, while scoring 30 points or more in 3 of its 5 games.
Dark horse: Marlboro County; how often can one refer to a perennial powerhouse as a dark horse? This season, however, Marlboro County fits the bill, limping into region play losers of 4 of its last 5 games. Still, the Bulldogs’ physicality at the point of attack can cause problems for more than their share of teams, and is one reason they cannot be looked past in this conference.
Most anticipated game: North Myrtle Beach at Myrtle Beach (Sept. 30)
Player to watch: Keyonte Sessions, Myrtle Beach; "Mr. Versatility" for the Seahawks, the senior all-purpose man has 12 touchdowns this season, in addition to 22 solo tackles and 18 assists. He also has a forced fumble and an interception to his credit.
Newcomers: Georgetown, Lake City
Departures: Marion, Mullins
Favorite: Dillon; no team has been as dominant over the past decade than the Wildcats, who continue to roll along — no matter who coach Jackie Hayes puts in the lineup. Following a 7-3 loss to national powerhouse Mallard Creek in its opener, Dillon has outscored opponents 195-41 over the past four games.
Next in line: Lake City; a step down to comparable competition has suited the Panthers well, getting off to a 4-1 start under head coach Terell Fleming. Balance on offense has proven mighty beneficial in Lake City’s hot start, the lineup featuring a passer already over the 1,000-yard mark, a rusher with more than 500 yards and three receivers nearing the 300-yard mark for the season.
Dark horse: Georgetown; when the Bulldogs do not turn the ball over, they are a tough team to beat. Over the past three games, Georgetown has been just that, outscoring opponents by a count of 80-21. Ball control and winning the battle in the trenches have proven to be ingredients for success, and should enable the team to continues its roll into league play.
Most anticipated game: Dillon at Lake City (Oct. 28)
Player to watch: Brayden Hawkins, Dillon; replacing an all-time great is tough, but the junior quarterback has proven up to the task through his first five games, having thrown 10 touchdowns opposed to two interceptions.
Newcomers: Carvers Bay, Latta, Marion, Mullins
Departures: Lake Marion, Lee Central, Timberland
Favorite: Carvers Bay; playing a tough non-region slate has prepared the Bears for a rough and tumble region slate. Having already disposed of preseason favorite Andrews, match ups with Latta, Marion and Mullins still loom.
Next in line: Andrews; the preseason favorite to take the league, a shocking 21-0 result against Carvers Bay in their region opener put the Yellow Jackets behind the curve early. However, with its ability to run the ball and play defense, it is not out of the question that Andrews could potentially run the table and possibly steal the conference title.
Dark horse: Latta, Marion and Mullins; each of these teams has a viable shot to play the role of spoiler to Andrews or Carvers Bay. The question remains whether any of them can remain consistent enough for 48 minutes to get the job done.
Most anticipated game: Latta at Carvers Bay (Oct. 28)
Player to watch: Janaz Sumpter, Carvers Bay; the all-purpose man will line up at a variety of spots throughout the game, among them quarterback, running back, wide receiver, linebacker or defensive back. This kid can do it all.
Newcomers: East Clarendon, Hannah-Pamplico
Departures: Carvers Bay, Latta
Favorite: Lake View; If not for Lamar, this team would likely be the talk of Lower State Class A. The Gators have made it look easy — particularly on the offensive side of the ball — scoring 40 or more points in 4 of their first 5 games.
Next in line: Hemingway; Losing seasons don’t come around often at Hemingway, so the prospect of two in a row was out of the question. The Tigers are rolling into region play, coming off of a solid 28-12 win over a good C.E. Murray team. Blessed with the typical size and skill that Hemingway teams of the past were known for, certainly it will be a tough out.
Dark horse: Green Sea Floyds; the Trojans are not afraid to go toe-to-toe with anyone, this particularly evident when they played up a classification (or two) during the first several weeks of the season. Despite going 1-2, they played well in each of those games — something that could bode well for them in league play.
Most anticipated game: Hemingway at Lake View (Oct. 28)
Player to watch: Randall Washington, Lake View; the Gators’ leading rusher, focus on him will help offer added opportunities for others in the backfield, each of whom is as capable of taking the ball to pay dirt.