Two years ago, Carolina Forest began the season as a region contender.
Led by a trio of talented seniors, the Panthers’ offensive firepower overwhelmed most of their opponents. The result was the school’s first region title in girls basketball since 2009.
But when that season ended, a question lingered: How long would it take for Carolina Forest to compete for a region crown again?
“No one expected us to be good,” said junior point guard Gabby Giracello. “It just means a lot that we pushed through.”
With their 52-19 trouncing of rival Conway last week, the Panthers clinched the region championship. The title is just Stacy Hughes’ third in her 18 years coaching the team and the first since the Panthers lost Alexis Tomlin, Cheyenne Pyles-Moultrie and Ellen Nardella to graduation in 2018.
“It’s been a lot of work this season,” Hughes said. “It felt good to clinch … in the fashion that we did.”
A year ago, the Panthers finished a surprising second in the region. Their lineup featured a new group of budding playmakers in Giracello, forward Ally Niles and center Carlie Skolsky. After their strong finish in 2019, the Panthers began the season ranked No. 10 in the state’s Class 5A division.
But Carolina Forest struggled to live up to the preseason hype. The losses began to mount. In fact, the Panthers still have a losing record (11-14).
“We kind of had high expectations at the beginning of the season,” Hughes said. “We just had some early setbacks.”
Injuries hurt the Panthers, and a family emergency kept Hughes away for some games. However, the Panthers still kept many of their losses close, despite the outcome.
“It just made us better,” Giracello said. “It gave us more experience in tough times.”
By the time region play began, the Panthers’ defense had improved, their offensive chemistry was stronger and they had begun to put more notches in the win column.
Friday’s victory left them with an 8-1 record in region play. That means regardless of Tuesday’s regular season finale (it was scheduled to be played after press deadlines), Carolina Forest secured the region championship.
“We’re just happy,” Giracello said. “We’ve worked so hard this season to get where we are.”
Despite their success, Hughes knows her squad can be even better.
Last week against Conway, the Panthers held the Tigers to just eight points over the first three quarters. Hughes said she has yet to see her team maintain high defensive intensity for a full game. And offensively, she’s still seeing too many turnovers.
“I feel pretty good,” the coach said. “We’ve got to push the ball and have high energy. … We’ve got to take care of the ball. If we can take care of the ball and rebound, then I feel real good about this team.”