By Ian Guerin
SCVarsity.com/Deep South Football Regional Editor, Coastal/Pee Dee Area
CONWAY | To say the Region VI-5A landscape has changed in the last calendar year would be an understatement.
Barring a last-minute hold on realignment – courtesy of a lawsuit and plenty of talk of a possible injunction against the South Carolina High School League’s most recent realignment plans – the division will trade Sumter for St. James. And of the six teams, three will have head coaches who weren’t in the position last May.
Jody Jenerette replaced Trey Woodberry at West Florence; Conway’s Carlton Terry, who served as the interim head coach after Chuck Jordan’s dismissal, was given the job permanently in February; and Joey Price left St. James after one season for the ministry. Tommy Norwood is running things, at least for now, although official interviews will begin soon.
All that change has everyone planning on doing a little more film and personnel prep come August.
“It makes it tougher,” said South Florence’s David Prince, now the senior coach in the region with six years in his current position. “You’re not necessarily sure what new scheme or style of play a new coach is going to bring. If [Jenerette] brings the same approach that he had at Aynor, that’s going to make things different. We haven’t had anything remotely close to that since Lugoff-Elgin left. It puts a big emphasis on scouting early in the season to get a little better prepared.”
For the record, Jenerette said there will be glimpses of his old Aynor Hammer offense, the double-wing formation that allowed his Blue Jackets teams to compete on a more consistent basis. That marriage of what he’s bringing in with West Florence’s past scheme will largely contend upon attrition numbers from the summer.
There will be subtler changes around Region VI-5A, too.
Socastee, which was sparse in terms of numbers last season, loses its three most consistent offensive players in quarterback Hunter Illing, receiver Devin Stamp and lineman Eric Heins. Conway’s massive senior class, one that included several players heading to the college ranks (most notably linebacker Jaylen Moody to Alabama), is gone. And Carolina Forest will be finding ways to work first-year starting quarterback Mason Garcia and his rocket right arm into a system that has traditionally been run-heavy.
But make no mistake, the most influential overall difference is going to be the schedule and Sumter’s move out of the region.
“Sumter has had a great run. They have a great group of guys. But for whatever reason, we played Sumter well,” Carolina Forest coach Marc Morris said. “Our kids stepped up to the challenge and played well against them. Any time you play a really good team that’s ranked, the kids know. They don’t have to look at the internet to see who’s good. It was just always a decent match-up.”
Morris’ opinion shows how much relativity goes into Sumter’s role over the course of the last 10 years.
Since Carolina Forest moved up to the state’s largest class in 2008 and joined Region VI regulars Conway, South Florence, West Florence and Sumter, the Panthers were just 1-9 against the Gamecocks.
In that same span, Conway, West Florence and South Florence were each 3-7 in their respective series with Sumter. Socastee, which moved up in 2014, was 0-4 against the Gamecocks in that time.
Throw in a couple games each against Hartsville (2008-2009) and Lugoff-Elgin (2010-2011), and Sumter posted a 35-13 region record over the course of the last decade. The Gamecocks finished either first or second in the region every season between 2013 and last fall and seven times overall in the last decade.
“It’s good for everyone else in the region,” Jenerette said. “I can tell right now, if you look at who has what coming back, Carolina Forest is going to be right there at the top. And everyone has to beat Conway. But [with Sumter out] You can breathe a little bit. It gives you a little more hope. I, for one, am happy that they are gone.”
Said Prince: “You knew you had to beat Sumter to win the region championship. They had the most talent. They had the most history. We always used them as the measuring stick.”
Assuming legal action doesn’t put the Gamecocks back into the mix, this fall could be as wide open as the region has ever been in some time.