Coming off the best football season in school history, where does Carolina Forest go from here?
Before COVID-19, that was the main question facing the Panthers. Now there are others — including what this season will actually look like — but players hope they will get the chance to prove that 2019 was not an outlier.
“It’s put us up at a high standard,” said Nevon Tyler, a senior captain who plans to play middle linebacker this year. “All our workouts have changed. We work at a higher pace, more physical. Coach [Marc] Morris has turned our program around phenomenally.”
Last year, the Panthers went 11-2, coming within a game of playing for a state championship. They won their first 5A region title under Morris and went further than any Carolina Forest team had ever gone in the playoffs.
Considering the team had reached the playoffs just four times in its first 16 years, the program is certainly in unfamiliar territory.
In 2013, the season before Morris arrived, Carolina Forest posted a dismal record of 1-10 and every loss was by double digits.
But Morris gradually changed the Panthers’ trajectory, culminating in last year’s success.
Of course, that was a year ago. Star quarterback Mason Garcia and standout running back David Legette have moved on to the college ranks, and there are new faces at multiple positions.
But the Panthers’ cupboard is far from bare this fall.
"We’re going to be strong on defense,” Tyler said. “We have a lot of seniors coming back, a lot of people that played last year, got a lot of reps.”
A key part of that defense will be fellow captain and inside linebacker Latrell Pitts. Pitts said the defense has great experience on the line, though there will be some new faces in the secondary.
“Our goal is to get just as far as last year and go even further beyond that,” he said. “We do want to win a state championship. I’ve been playing with these boys ever since we were all kids at the community center. Our goal has always been to be the best that we can possibly be.”
That’s what Morris preaches. Once last season ends, it’s over and time to move on with a new group.
This year, he shifted senior Kyle Watkins over from slot receiver into the quarterback role. Watkins got some snaps behind center backing up Garcia last year and he also played the position at the JV level.
“He’s just a natural leader,” Morris said, adding that Watkins is a proven winner. “That’s what you want at that position.”
At running back, he’s expecting to play Mo Belfield.
The coach is pleased with a young but talented receiving corps and has three returning starters on the offensive line. But defensively is where the team is most experienced, returning eight starters.
Morris said the team has strong senior leadership as well.
“This is a great group of guys we’ve got coming back,” he said. “It’s a great senior class. … They’ve worked hard for us for four years.”
Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, Morris said players have been enthusiastic about the season. The Panthers have had more than 150 athletes show up for summer training, and they are not taking anything for granted — just focusing on the moment.
“Let’s just worry about what we can control,” the coach tells them. “All we can control is our attitude and our effort.”
Like his players, he’s entering the season with confidence.
“The expectations are high at our school,” Morris said. “And our kids expect to be successful.”