Consider this the next stage of the Marc Morris development plan at Carolina Forest.
And another first for the budding football program.
The Panthers will largely be considered the region favorites entering 2019, something that’s never happened before in their 21 years of varsity football. It’s a response to scores of influential returning players, and the potential most folks see out of this team.
That presents a new type of issue for the sixth-year coach to address.
“I thought we’ve had some talent since we’ve been here. It’s a matter of getting over the hump,” Morris said. “Our kids now believe they’re supposed to win. Dealing with a high school kid, it’s just as important to deal with their psyche as it is their talent.”
Under Morris, the previous road blocks at Carolina Forest have been coming down steadily throughout his tenure.
In year one, the Panthers edged rival Conway. The following year, Carolina Forest made its first trip to the Class 4A state playoffs (prior to the state moving to five classifications). Then, in 2016, the team had a winning record. The next year, it was a playoff victory. And last fall, there was another postseason win and a second-place finish in the region.
The writing for this season was certainly on the wall.
“It’s what we expect. We expect to win the region,” senior running back David Legette said. “We play like that, in practice and games; we play like we expect to win.”
Legette’s emergence as one of the area’s top running backs hasn’t hurt. He ran for 1,436 yards and 14 touchdowns last year in 10 games.
And it is not like he’s some one-man show for this offense.
Quarterback Mason Garcia’s meteoric recruiting rise in the offseason was a byproduct of a junior year in which he threw for 1,565 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushed for another 537 yards and 13 scores.
Two of his favorite targets, Josh Murphy and Kyle Watkins, are back again. And both the rushing and passing games are sure to be bolstered by the next former junior varsity standout making the leap to the varsity.
Defensively, the Panthers have the look of a unit that could improve upon its already respectable 22.8 points per game allowed from last season, and the biggest reason why is junior Latrell Pitts, who established himself early on last year as a top-flight linebacker.
“We threw him into something last year he wasn’t ready for as a sophomore,” Morris said. “Now, he’s doing all our defensive calls.”
Also returning, among others, are defensive lineman Nevon Tyler and defensive back Adam Janack, who led the team in interceptions last year.
Put it all together, and it’s easier to see why the Panthers are being picked to win the region more than anyone else. How Carolina Forest adjusts to that status — the psyche of the next phase, as Morris put it — will likely determine just how far this team will go.