A year ago, eight of the nine Horry County baseball programs made the state playoffs.
The season was also considered a relative disappointment for most of those teams. How the times have changed.
Despite the near-perfect postseason entry rate, the overall success of the previous year made 2017 seem light by comparison since six of the eight were eliminated in the opening tier of the playoffs. However, the area coaches have been saying for some time that this spring has the makings of another banner campaign similar to and maybe even better than 2016.
Young players have grown into tested seniors. Teams that struggled with injuries are now healthy. And expectations have probably never been higher.
“I just knew two, three, four years ago - looking at the JV kids and watching JV games - all of us coaches had been talking. At that time, everybody was saying this was going to be very good,” said Myrtle Beach coach Tim Christy, who actually stated something similar nearly two full years ago. “It’s come to fruition. St. James has 11 seniors. We have three kids who are going to be playing in college. North Myrtle Beach has a few. Carolina Forest has those really good arms. It was easy to prognosticate that this was going to be a very good year.”
But what exactly would qualify as a really good year?
For starters, all nine programs making the playoffs is not out of the question. Two of the three Region VI-5A squads in Carolina Forest, Conway and Socastee did so a year ago, and the Braves and coach Curtis Hudson are certainly capable of making their way back behind the likes of Wesley Lane and Quinten Masciarelli.
In Class 4A, St. James was picked No. 7 in the South Carolina Baseball Coaches Association’s preseason poll, with fellow Region VII squad North Myrtle Beach not far behind at No. 10. Myrtle Beach, led by Luke Edwards, Jackson Thomas and five other returning starters, will be right there, as well.
Aynor made the Lower State tournament in its first year in Class 3A last spring after winning the Class 2A state championship in 2016. It wouldn't be a surprise if the Blue Jackets (ranked No. 10 in the SCBCA poll) made another deep run again this spring. Loris has been a consistent postseason qualifier, too.
Add in Green Sea Floyds, which last year made the playoffs under coach Derek Martin and was No. 5 in the Class A preseason poll this year, and everyone in the county making the postseason is feasible.
Early indications from preseason scrimmages and tournaments aren’t changing many of those preconceived notions.
“I’ve played St. James and Myrtle Beach and Aynor,” Conway coach Anthony Carroll said. “I can tell you those three stack up against anybody that I’ve seen otherwise. Those three are going to very good. We played Loris, too, and they are very solid. St. James has a legitimate shot to win a state championship.”
Sharks coach Robbie Centracchio isn’t shying away from those possibilities with his team. St. James had to scrap to make the playoffs last spring - thanks to a mid-season slump brought about by some injuries - after playing for the 3A state crown in 2016.
“I think that every year,” Centracchio said of a potential run. “A lot of things have to happen on paper. But there are so many other factors besides on paper. We’ve got to stay injury free. We’ve got to have some guys who we think are going to be pretty good be just a little better.”
Many of the other eight Horry County coaches have had similar sentiments in the months since the 2017 season came to a close. That’s because many of them are also extremely close and lean on each other - and have done so for a long time.
Aynor’s Chad Sarvis is entering his 20th season with the Blue Jackets. Carroll and Centracchio are each in their 15th seasons at their respective schools. Christy is in his 10th at Myrtle Beach. Hudson is in his eighth, while Brian Alderson (North Myrtle Beach) Martin at Green Sea-Floyds and Tim Graham at Loris are each in their fourth. Carolina Forest’s Joey Worley is in his second at Carolina Forest.
“These guys have been in it for the long haul,” Sarvis said. “We’re kind of a sounding board for each other. Any time I’ve got questions about something - ‘What are you doing in the offseason? What are you doing in the weight room?’ - those are things that help each other.”
Each of them have bounced ideas off another, and exposure between the schools is about as high as it gets. All those preseason tournaments that started last week fed directly into this week’s regular-season openers. And during spring break over the first week of April, the massive second session of the Mingo Bay Classic will feature more than 90 teams as it earns the right to call itself the largest high school tournament in the country. Eight of the nine Horry County teams will host games.
Then it's right back into a region schedule that will ultimately determine how many of the nine will be postseason-bound. Just how many do so - and what they accomplish once they get there - is certainly not predetermined.
The coaches, however, already agree on what will lead the area to that point.
“There aren’t going to be any off nights,” Christy said, “when you’re playing anybody in the county.”