Stacy Hughes isn’t starting from scratch, but she’s working with mostly new ingredients.
The Carolina Forest girls basketball coach lost three starters from last year’s region championship team, including center Alexis Tomlin, the state’s 5A girls player of the year.
“We lost 45 points of offense and pretty much all our rebounding power,” Hughes said. “We’re kind of at a learning stage, a rebuild stage.”
Along with Tomlin, the team will also be without Ellen Nardella, three-point specialist, and Cheyenne Pyles-Moultrie, a guard who scored over 1,000 points for the Panthers. All three graduated in the spring.
But the cupboard isn’t bare. The Panthers’ returning starters are sophomore point guard Gabby Giracello and senior forward Jordan Martin.
“The roles all the kids played were kind of minor roles last year,” Hughes said. “Now they’re stepping up into some more major impact roles. So we’re learning. We’re learning how to score. We’re learning how to rebound.”
For Hughes, who is in her 17th year leading the Carolina Forest program, this isn’t the first inexperienced group she’s coached.
And she’s optimistic about what her players can accomplish, though she’s not unrealistic. She describes her team as undersized and less athletic than some of their peers.
“We’re hustling,” she said. “I like that our effort is there. … The wins aren’t going to come necessarily easy for us this year. We’re going to have to work our tails off.”
Giracello is a focal point for Carolina Forest. A defensive specialist who played shooting guard and small forward last year, the Panthers’ needed her to run their offense this winter.
“It’s been tough at times,” Giracello said. “But it’s getting easier with practice.”
So far, Hughes has been impressed.
“I’m pleased with her growth,” she said. “She’s made some big improvements in a lot of areas.”
The team has seen mixed success this season.
They won a November tournament at Socastee High School, then dropped two games against North Myrtle Beach.
“We’re trying to get our team chemistry together,” Martin said. “We’re starting to get back flowing.”
Although the Panthers lack the offensive firepower they had a year ago, Hughes said their peers in the region are in a similar position.
“The region is a little bit down this year,” she said. “Conway lost their best three kids, so they’re a little down. West and South [Florence], they were a little down last year, so they’re rebuilding. … I think we could be somewhere in the mix. We’ve got to bring it every night. It’s not going to come easy for us by any means.”