Plenty of contenders as Pepsi Carolina Classic tips off Thursday

By: Abbie Skeen

FLORENCE – The number of teams playing in the Pepsi Carolina Classic might be down, but the number of potential contenders for the title certainly isn’t.

The three-day tournament begins Thursday at the Florence Center, and right away it features one of the marquee names as defending champion and top-seeded Hartsville takes on South Florence in the 2:30 p.m. game.

“We’re going to go in and play the best brand of basketball that we possibly can – just like we did last year,” Red Fox coach Yusuf English said. “The focus doesn’t change. We’re going to continue to do what we did last year and play as hard as we can.

“The field is extremely deep, but we’re going to try our best.”

In fact it’s the deepest field English has seen in his three years at Hartsville, he said. All three city schools will be represented, including Class 4A state runner-up Wilson, which is back for the first time since 2014.

Wilson is the No. 2 overall seed and not the only set of Tigers vying for the title. Defending Class A champion Hemingway comes in as the No. 5 seed. Hemingway will face Class 2A state runner-up Carvers Bay while another 2A contender, Marion, will battle perennial 4A power Darlington.

In all, seven of the eight teams qualified for the postseason a year ago with four of the seven making it to at the least the semifinal round.

“Sometimes you get a tournament that’s top-heavy, but that’s not the case here, as top to bottom you’ve got a lot of very good teams,” English said.

Hartsville and Wilson actually are right around the .500 mark for the season so far, but the third-seeded Falcons already have a double-digit win total.

“We’ve obviously got a lot of talented kids who’ve played hard and are hungry for wins,” first-year Darlington coach Anthony Heilbronn said. “We set a goal at the beginning of the year to play for championships, and this is one we had circled.”

Darlington has never won the Pepsi Carolina Classic, but Heilbronn is hoping this team can change that. Still, it won’t be easy, as the Falcons have played a number of the same squads already and have a familiarity with a few more.

“We’ve played Marion once this year, and if we win that first game, we’re matched up against South Florence or Hartsville,” Heilbronn said. “We’ve played South twice, and we will play Hartsville twice come January, and it’s very hard to beat good teams two or three times in the same season.”

Should their teams continue to win, both Heilbronn and English are hoping the experience at the Pepsi Carolina Classic will pay off come playoff time, as the lower state finals will take place in the same venue.

“Preparation and getting used to the goals and the depth perception in that arena – it’s definitely a plus to play in the Florence Center, because hopefully it’s a precursor of things to come,” English said.