Not too long ago, the notion of North Myrtle Beach being a football powerhouse might have provoked a hearty giggle.
These days, however, the only ones laughing are the kids from the North Strand.
The Chiefs put a bow on a season of firsts this past Friday night, completing a 10-0 regular season and an outright Region 7-4A title with a 41-7 win over St. James.
Typically, first-year North Myrtle Beach football coach Matt Reel is a stickler for order. On this night, he allowed things to stray a bit off the rails, soaking in the moment as his team chanted “10-and-0!, 10-and-0!”
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Said Reel: “We changed a lot of culture my first couple years (as an assistant), from a coaching standpoint, a player standpoint and community standpoint. I think there has been a lot of support here, but when you’re not winning it is hard to keep that sometimes.
“For me, just knowing where we were at as an assistant to where we’re at now, it’s just really exciting to see the stands packed out.”
For years, the football program — much less the school’s other athletic ventures — were an afterthought in Little River.
Prior to the 2016 season, North Myrtle Beach had experienced 13 winning seasons in its 46 years of varsity competition on the gridiron. Only on three occasions during the stretch had the Chiefs strung together consecutive winning campaigns (1979-80, 1985-86, 2002-04).
Though rejoicing in times of plenty, too many years between were spent hoping for good times to return once again, said longtime North Myrtle Beach color commentator Wayne White.
“I can remember many years (looking out from the Hank Hester Athletic Complex pressbox) and you could count how many were in the stands,” he said.
The program arguably hit its low mark in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, going winless under former coach Perry Woolbright — his first two years on the job.
The biggest thing is, these kids were successful there and then took it to middle school. Our community took notice then, rallying behind them then and we’ve only seen more support pour in since.
Timmy Vereen, North Myrtle Beach Athletic Booster Club president
Sure, the product on the field wasn’t much to brag about. But under the surface, a groundswell of support was starting to build up.
“I think one of the first things that helped was getting all of the schools that feed into North Myrtle Beach to change their names to ‘Chiefs,’” said Timmy Vereen, president of the North Myrtle Beach Athletic Booster Club. “Before that, they were Braves, Indians, whatever else. But we got the administrations on board, so the kids started coming up as Chiefs.”
Woolbright eventually led the Chiefs to victory in 2012 — five, in fact — followed by a nine-win campaign and a playoff berth the following season. After the 2013 campaign, he would depart for Batesburg-Leesville.
Any transition is expected to have its share of hiccups. And when Blair Hardin took over the reins, there were quite the share of them as he and his staff sought to create something built to last.
“This is something we’ve been at in my three years here,” Hardin said during the 2016 season, his final one at the school. “We want to be a smart team, one that pays attention to every detail.”
That also held true for Hardin, forced to make tough decisions not necessarily popular to most or could potentially put his team at a disadvantage.
In his first two years, Hardin’s teams won nine of their 22 contests. The 2016 season would be the one in which North Myrtle Beach truly asserted itself as a powerhouse, though, winning 11 games along with a share of the Region 7-4A title.
Now under Reel, the program has clinched consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time in school history. It also is ranked No. 2 in the Class 4A prep media poll, also a program-best.
It’s amazing, you look into the bleachers on Thursday and Friday nights and you just see everybody in the community. Then you go out to eat on Saturday and people come up to you and congratulate you on the win. It is a good thing.
North Myrtle Beach football standout Tyler Gore
According to Vereen, losing is something this year’s group hasn’t done often ... if at all.
“It all goes back to playing ball together at Highway 57 and rec league,” he said. “The biggest thing is, these kids were successful there and then took it to middle school. Our community took notice then, rallying behind them then and we’ve only seen more support pour in since.
“They’re used to winning, and the community is right behind them.”
And it has shown it by putting their hard-earned dollars into the athletic program. Ahead of the 2017 campaign, the North Myrtle Beach Athletic Booster Club said it reached a record level of sponsorships.
“This community loves our kids,” said James Bowyers of James Plumbing in North Myrtle Beach, a key sponsor of Chiefs athletics. “I think the biggest thing is, we see them doing well on the field, but they are better kids. I mean, they are rarely a problem and the community notices that.
“... We all feel a part of this. Everyone is willing to chip in and give a hand, oftentimes without a coach having to ask. Whether it is volleyballs, baseballs, track shoes, whatever it is we’re willing to do it.”
North Myrtle Beach standout Tyler Gore, a four-year contributor to the football team, said anytime he’s out and about, locals make sure he is embraced with love.
“It’s amazing, you look into the bleachers on Thursday and Friday nights and you just see everybody in the community,” Gore said. “Then you go out to eat on Saturday and people come up to you and congratulate you on the win. It is a good thing.”
So as Reel and the North Myrtle Beach football team celebrated the program’s latest accomplishment, it came as little surprise those offering support were in the postgame huddle eager to join in.
“I think there has been a lot of support here. When you’re not winning it can be hard to keep that sometimes,” the first-year head man said. “There’s expectations now. There wasn’t expectations when we first got here, so our change has come full circle.”
Now, there’s only a few more goals left to make this redemption story a true fairy tale.
“There still are plenty things we’d like to do,” Vereen said. “We’d like to spruce up our facilities, bring in new equipment … that’s our goal right now.
“But we’re enjoying this ride, and hopefully it leads to Williams-Brice Stadium (in Columbia). It would be unbelievable … I don’t know if there will be any stores open in the North Myrtle Beach community if that happens.”
Year of firsts for NMB
▪ First 10-0 regular season in school history
▪ First time in school history the program has achieved consecutive 10+ win seasons
▪ First outright region championship
▪ Achieved its highest ranking in the state media prep poll
▪ Coach Matt Reel is off to the best start for a first-year coach in NMB history (10-0)
▪ Kered Class is the first Chiefs player to rush for 3,000 yards in his career
▪ Tyler Gore became only the second player in program history to be named to the Shrine Bowl