Those who have followed Socastee football for more than a few years know the struggle the Braves had in their first run through Class AAAA.
The team was a member of the state’s largest division from 1982-2003, and those 22 seasons were anything but kind. Socastee only made the playoffs five times in that span, and it reached the seven-win mark just three times.
There were other factors than enrollment status, of course, including nine full coaching changes. But it still makes what the Braves have accomplished in their first year back in Class AAAA something to relish.
“You can tell a size difference when you go play a AAAA school or a AAA school,” senior defensive back Sam McKinney said. “We’re still kind of in a AAA mentality. There are not many kids on our team that have the size these guys have. That’s the first thing I noticed against West Florence.”
The double-overtime victory over West Florence moved Socastee to 7-2 overall and 2-1 in Region VI-AAAA. With a win Friday against South Florence or at Sumter next week, the Braves will likely be headed to the playoffs.
Win both, and Doug Illing’s team will be region champions, the same distinction it held the last two years in Region VII-AAA when it eventually finished 12-1. That continuity of success rarely happens for teams moving up a division. Greenville, for instance, was a 7-4 playoff team last year in Class AAA and is currently 2-7 in Class AAAA.
What’s more, Socastee’s offense lost a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Hunter Renfrow and Delano Walters, along with a number of other key pieces.
“I thought we had the chance. I liked the core unit of our team,” Illing said. “You lose Delano and Hunter – that’s our offensive production. Kyle Smith and Stephen Gursky, that’s who we were. It took the summer to get an identity. As we settled into that, we started to figure out our strengths and building around them.”
Returning standouts like McKinney and four offensive linemen were paired with the likes of quarterback Jordan Hodge and fullback Angelo Sauter. They nearly handed undefeated Myrtle Beach – which won on a missed Socastee field goal in September – a stunning loss.
It was games like that, though, that have allowed the Braves to have some immediate success in Region VI-AAAA. Until facing West Florence, the rest of the area opponents this year were also a part of the schedule in the last two.
Friday against South Florence, Socastee will be facing another team it hasn’t played since 2003, the last season it was a Class AAAA program.
“I think sometimes you can throw the classification out,” Illing said. “It’s still a football game. You’ve got to tackle and execute blocks. No matter what level you’re playing on, you’ve got to do those things right.”
The Braves have done more than enough to make themselves a player in the region. Should they ultimately qualify for the postseason, their average daily membership (the SCHSL term for enrollment numbers) would place them in the Class AAAA, Division II playoffs, leaving them as one of the final 16 teams competing for a state championship on that level.
It’s still a ways off, but also closer than ever.
“West Florence gave us a pretty good taste of what we would face,” McKinney said. “We all knew that we could go out and win, but we didn’t have a realization of how hard it would be.
“You can feel how much more important it is in a AAAA game. With AAAA, every game in your season is worth value. … The stage is bigger. We’re expected more of [ourselves] when we play AAAA teams.”