Even longtime Horry County baseball fans haven’t seen this type of overall production at the high school level in a single year.
Carolina Forest fell one victory shy of the Class AAAA finals after losing in the Lower State tournament championship. Loris and Green Sea Floyds qualified for their respective district tournament championships. North Myrtle Beach and Myrtle Beach also made the postseason, with the Chiefs winning an opening round game before exiting.
The biggest differences from years past, though, revolve around the two teams still playing. On Monday, Aynor will open the Class AA state baseball finals against Strom Thurmond, while St. James can qualify for the Class AAA championship series with a single win (in two opportunities) at home against Airport.
These are certainly different times.
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“I wasn’t here when baseball wasn’t that great,” St. James coach Robbie Centracchio said. “But in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was just a struggle from what I hear. When you get to that point, it’s exciting.”
Just how rare has 2016 been?
Should the Sharks punch through into the state finals, it be the first time in South Carolina High School League history that two Horry County baseball programs made it to the final series in the same year. In fact, prior to this spring, the previous seven-plus decades of varsity ball here netted just 10 teams doing so.
St. James’ 2011 championship remains the lone title won by an Horry County school in the sport.
In a larger scope, if St. James wins Monday, Horry County will also be the only one in the state with multiple teams still alive. Greenville, Dorchester, Anderson, Edgefield, Chesterfield and Dillon will each have one.
Horry County would love to be able to claim a second.
But this isn’t necessarily about the county’s competition with others, even with more SCHSL-level high schools than all but five counties in the state. Rather, it’s about how the 2016 season has been a reckoning within itself. If Horry County has ever had a breakthrough year after decade upon decade of participation within the sport, this is it.
“When you put things in perspective, you had Carolina Forest one game away from playing for the state title. You have St. James one win away from the state title. And they you have Aynor,” said Daryl Brown, a chief officer for Horry County Schools. “It’s a cumulative effort of all the teams working together. I’m talking about the rec programs, the JV programs, the varsity programs. It’s just great for the county. It’s just all of those things working together, and it’s paying huge dividends for the county.”
Centracchio believes one of the biggest reasons for the uptick is the addition of youth parks and availability recognized through a budding sports tourism market, most notably The Ripken Experience and The Market Common.
As those venues have built their own brand, they’ve served as feeder sites for the high school programs. And the coaches at those schools have taken advantage of their ever-increasing crop of players who are near-varsity ready.
“No question,” Myrtle Beach coach Tim Christy said. “In two years, it will be hell on wheels. Everybody has good, young talent.”
Said Aynor Athletics Director Doug Hinson: “A lot of our rec coaches either know Chad [Sarvis] or went to school with Chad. They know what he wants. They teach the fundamentals of it. Our crowd gets their kids involved in the rec program. They come up knowing the fundamentals.”
What those players have also discovered is a strong consistency in the coaching ranks. Of the nine head varsity coaches in Horry County, four have been at their respective school for at least eight years. While Loris coach Tim Graham is in his second year there, he has been a head or assistant coach within the district for 15 seasons.
All those coaches tend to lean on each other.
“There are a lot of good baseball people in high school here,” Graham said. “The head coaches are all very dedicated and knowledgeable and they have brought in great assistant coaches. It’s a very close coaching fraternity, as well. I could pick up the phone and call any of them and they would be there to to help with whatever, and I would do the same for them.”
That was the case on Friday and Saturday. When Carolina Forest’s field was under water prior to its Lower State finals games against Summerville, Christy showed up to lend a hand to get it ready and Conway’s Anthony Carroll drove over to donate Turface, a quick-dry infield conditioner.
Carroll then spent another six hours rooting on Carolina Forest during its two games.
The local fraternity is starting to reap the benefits. And the teams they coach are winning when it matters most more than they ever have.
“I know in Columbia and other areas, there are guys just looking for another job,” said Centracchio, who tattooed the St. James logo on his right bicep at the 2011 championship. “I can’t speak for anybody but myself, but I just love my job, this area. I’m coaching baseball for St. James High School or I’m coaching for the Yankees. Those are my two choices. And the Yankees isn’t happening. I think [other local coaches] are the same way. It’s a community of baseball.”
If you go
WHAT: Class AA State baseball finals, Strom Thurmond vs. Aynor
WHEN: 6 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday (barring rain postponements)
WHERE: Aynor, Strom Thurmond, neutral site
TICKETS: $6, only SCHSL passes allowed
ABOUT: This is the second time Aynor has qualified for the best-of-three state finals. The Blue Jackets previously did so in 2006, also under current head coach Chad Sarvis. Aynor swept its way through the district tournament. The team’s only loss in the playoffs was an opening defeat against Bishop England in the Lower State finals. It won game two of the series, however, and advanced to the championship finals.
If you go
WHAT: Class AAA Lower State finals, Airport vs. St. James
WHEN: 6 p.m. Monday
WHERE: St. James
TICKETS: $5, only SCHSL passes allowed
ABOUT: St. James, which has yet to lose in the Lower State tournament, will have to beat Airport one time – while the Eagles must win twice – in order to advance to the state finals. The Sharks defeated Airport in the first round and then Hilton Head in the second with walk-off plays in the final inning. Airport has worked its way to the finals via the loser’s bracket, defeating Berkeley and Hilton Head. Should St. James win, it will be the Sharks’ second trip to the state championship series. They won the Class AAA title in 2011.
Horry County schools in the state baseball finals
Year - Team (result) - Coach (if known)
1958 - Myrtle Beach (L)
1961 - Myrtle Beach (L)
1993 - Green Sea-Floyds (L) - Doug Collins
1996 - Green Sea-Floyds (L) - Doug Soles
2001 - Loris (L) - Larry Carr
2006 - Aynor (L) - Chad Sarvis
2014 - Loris (L) - Keith Daniels
2016 - Aynor (TBD) - Chad Sarvis
2005 - Socastee (L) - John Daurity
2011 - St. James (W) - Robbie Centracchio
2008 - Conway (L) - Anthony Carroll