For some time, the feeling among those at North Myrtle Beach was that opponents did not respect it on the gridiron.
After staking claim to the program’s best season in history — an 11-2 record, a share of the Region 7-4A title and a pair of playoff wins — the question now is, “How do we keep the momentum going?”
“You know, there was a time they didn’t respect us because we’re not your traditional powerhouse,” said North Myrtle Beach football coach Matt Reel. “I think the biggest thing about it is we have a group that believes in each other, and coaches that work hard.
“Our hard work has put us in a place that we don’t hope to wins games now … we go in expecting to win.”
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Perry Woolbright began the work of turning the program around, taking the Chiefs from a winless ball club to the playoffs in a matter of years. After he left to take a job at Batesburg-Leesville, Blair Hardin kept the train going during his three seasons at the school, taking it to the postseason each year of his tenure.
Now the program’s fate rests with Reel, who despite having big shoes to fill — particularly after last season’s historic run — has arguably one of the most stocked cupboards of any coach during their time in Little River.
“I’m sort of thankful for (the number of returning players),” Reel joked. “It really will make the transition from my former job as an assistant to that of a head coach much easier to handle.”
Much of that optimism has to do with the weapons residing on the offensive side of the ball for North Myrtle Beach.
Called upon late last season to take the reins of the Chiefs offense, Cason McClendon comes into this year as the team’s unquestioned starter at quarterback. In the six games he appeared in during the 2016 gridiron campaign, he threw for 724 yards and 11 touchdowns.
You know, there was a time they didn’t respect us because we’re not your traditional powerhouse. I think the biggest thing about it is we have a group that believes in each other, and coaches that work hard. Our hard work has put us in a place that we don’t hope to wins games now … we go in expecting to win.
North Myrtle Beach football coach Matt Reel
“It helps him having some of that experience last year. I think it only can provide a boost,” Reel said. “In my eyes, he’s now a third-year starter. He’s seen a year at the junior varsity level, and another playing both JV and varsity. Now he’s the starter for us on varsity, and those jitters he had going in last year, he won’t have to work through those as much.”
It also helps having a talented supporting cast.
Joining McClendon in the North Myrtle Beach backfield is a pair of capable backs in T.J. Gore and Kered Class. A year ago, Gore was one of the area’s top backs with 947 yards and nine touchdowns, while Class’ shifty style earned him 863 yards and seven trips to pay dirt.
At wide receiver, Tyler Gore again will be the team’s top target. The Georgia State commit had 29 receptions for 455 yards and nine touchdowns, along with 101 rushing yards for another score.
If there is a weakness for the unit, it is on the offensive line, where only two starters return from last season’s squad. “We’re going to be a bit young, but these guys know the system and pretty much know what to expect,” Reel said.
Kwame Livingston — a standout defensive lineman — may be called upon to do double-time this season. If able to help the way he has on the defensive side of the ball, the Chiefs will be just fine.
Last season, he had 54 tackles and assisted on 12 more. He also had six sacks and recovered a fumble.
Joining him on the North Myrtle Beach defensive front is his brother, Marcelous.
“It helps having the two of them, especially with who we lost on the defensive line to graduation,” Reel said. “Jerell Dease and Steven Bryant were two guys that came up big for us, and really could play the run well. We will miss them, but it presents an opportunity for someone else to step up.”
Opportunities for playing time also exist at linebacker and in the defensive backfield.
Despite such optimism and talent in his team’s locker room, Reel believes this year’s route to a potential league title will be even tougher than last year.
“You already know Myrtle Beach is going to be good. (Head coach Mickey Wilson) has a machine going over there,” the North Myrtle Beach head man said. “Then you have Marlboro County — a perennial powerhouse. St. James hired a great coach in Joey Price, so you can’t expect them to be down for long, and Wilson … I’ve always said if they hire the right person, they could be dangerous.
“Week in and week out we have to bring our best. Because everyone is going to want to knock you off.”
North Myrtle Beach
Coach: Matt Reel (first season)
2016 record: 11-2, 3-1 Region VII-4A (lost to Chapin in Lower State 4A semifinal round)
Key players: Tyler Gore (Sr., ATH), Kered Class (Sr., RB), T.J. Gore (Sr., RB), Cason McClendon (Jr., QB), Kwame Livingston (Sr., DL)
The word: Was it all a dream, or is this the new reality for North Myrtle Beach? A season in which the Chiefs won a share of the Region VII-4A title and two playoff games, a talented core returns for the team. New head man Matt Reel — and more specifically, junior quarterback Cason McLendon — will have both of his running backs from a season ago in Kered Class and T.J. Gore at his disposal, along with wide receiver Tyler Gore. Though some voids need to be filled at the linebacker level, defensive lineman Kwame Livingston will anchor the Chiefs' defensive line.