Of the 126 kids in Carolina Forest High School’s football program, just 13 are seniors.
But don’t confuse that number with inexperience.
“We have a lot of kids that played last year as sophomores on varsity,” coach Marc Morris said. “So even though we do have a small senior class, we do have a lot of kids that do have varsity experience.”
That’s particularly true for the Panthers’ offensive line, which started three sophomores last year in Darin Goss, Mason McCue and EJ Herbert. Now juniors, they will join senior Jacob Matz in anchoring the line this season.
“They’re all a year older and a year stronger,” Morris said.
The line will be blocking for a trio of battle-tested running backs in David Legette, Marquavious Collier and Jeremy Green. Morris typically prefers a committee of rushers for his run-heavy attack, and this group gives him just that.
“The best defense is the one standing behind you,” he said. “If you can run that football and leave that offense on the field, it’s good.”
Along with those veterans, the Panthers are also benefitting from a stellar junior varsity program. The JV squad went undefeated last year and posted 9-1 record the year before that.
A key young talent from that program is junior quarterback Mason Garcia. He will replace three-year starter Matt Beale, who is now on Coastal Carolina University’s roster.
A dual-threat quarterback, Beale was often a part of the Panthers’ rushing attack. But at 6-5 and 210 pounds, Garcia is more of a passer.
“They are different,” Morris said. “Matt was a little bit more of a runner. [He] understood our offense and was a good team leader. Mason’s a bigger kid. … He’s got a big arm. He’s a very talented kid. We expect a lot out of him.”
Despite his youth, Garcia is attracting interest from college programs. He has already received an offer from East Carolina University.
“He just knows the game,” senior cornerback Logan Marchese said. “He knows where to put the ball at the right time. His height gives him an advantage. He’s strong. He sees the field.”
Carolina Forest is coming off a season that saw the Panthers upset Lexington on the road and reach the second round of the 5A playoffs. But they also picked up fewer wins than they would have liked.
“Last year wasn’t how we wanted it to be, but we did pretty well,” Marchese said. “This year should definitely be better.”
This fall, the Panthers will see some changes in the region, though they’re not necessarily bad ones for Carolina Forest.
Gone is powerhouse Sumter and coming into the region is St. James, which has won just two games over the last two years. However, Morris said the region will still be tough.
“It’s going to be a real good region just because a lot of teams, other than Conway, have a lot of returning players coming back,” Morris said. “[They’re] going to play significant roles for their team. [Carlton Terry] and Conway will do a good job and they’ll be right there in the thick of it, too. … Should be a competitive conference. It always is. I don’t expect this year to be any different.”
Although the Panthers’ offensive line is experienced, the defensive line is mostly new.
“We’ve got a lot of new faces that’s going to be on the defensive line,” Morris said. “Like I said, [they] played very well at the JV level. Now they’ve just got to step up and do a good job for us at the varsity level.”
Overall, Carolina Forest has experience on its side this year, and Morris said that maturity should be obvious on the field.
“We were really a young football team last year,” he said. “And any time kids understand what’s expected of them to play on Friday night and the level of intensity they have to play with, that’s always a bonus for any team. Just to have the experience of playing on Friday night does mean a lot.”