DUTCH FORK | Marc Morris tried to explain the long view.
With his players kneeling around him after Friday’s game at Dutch Fork, he talked about how far the Carolina Forest football program had come in recent years and the role those athletes played in that progress. But he couldn’t ignore the sting of the moment.
“If it don’t hurt, it didn’t mean nothing,” he said. “That’s the beauty of what we do.”
For the second straight season, Dutch Fork (8-0) knocked Carolina Forest (7-2) out of the playoffs, pulling away late to secure a 63-42 victory and advance to next week’s lower state title game. Carolina Forest isn’t alone in their struggles with the Silver Foxes, who have won their last 47 games and four 5A state titles.
“They’re the champs right now for a reason,” Morris said. “Their kids played great. … They’re the pinnacle of high school athletics right now.”
Early on, Carolina Forest looked like it was at the same level as the Midlands powerhouse — at least on the offensive side of the ball.
After the Silver Foxes opened the scoring at the 9:52 mark of the first quarter, the Panthers responded with a touchdown pass from Kyle Watkins to wideout DJ Admill. The Silver Foxes pulled ahead late in the quarter, but the Panthers again answered when Watkins torched the Dutch Fork defense for a 74-yard touchdown run.
Dutch Fork quarterback Will Taylor put his team back in front with a 25-yard scoring scamper of his own, but Watkins drove the Panthers back down the field and scored on a six-yard run.
“Resilience is the best word,” Morris said. “We kept battling with them and battling with them.”
Taylor took off on a highlight reel 59-yard dash to put Dutch Fork in front 28-21. The Panthers looked like they might drain the clock and wait for halftime, but Watkins again dashed through the Silver Foxes to tie the game at 28 with under a minute to play.
“If he wasn’t the best player on the field, he was definitely one of the best players on the field,” Morris said of his senior signal caller, who rushed for 281 yards and threw for another 168 Friday. “He’s been our leader all year.”
But even Watkins’ video game-style performance wasn’t enough against Dutch Fork. The Silver Foxes again displayed their offensive firepower when Taylor connected with wideout Elijah Spencer for a 43-yard touchdown pass with 2.5 seconds left in the half.
Despite being down at the break, the Panthers got the ball to start the third quarter and promptly pushed into Dutch Fork territory. But an interception ended the drive and Dutch Fork later capitalized with a 48-yard rushing touchdown from Taylor.
Carolina Forest looked like it might begin to turn things around late in the third quarter. They forced a turnover on downs, then drove to the Dutch Fork 5 yard line. But on the first play of the fourth quarter, Watkins fumbled the ball and the Silver Foxes returned it for a touchdown.
Watkins would run for another touchdown and throw for one too before the game ended, but the Panthers couldn't overcome the consistent barrage of points from Dutch Fork.
The defeat was a blow for the Panthers, especially their nearly 30 seniors.
“This is a special group,” senior linebacker Nevon Tyler said. “We’ve been working since freshman year for this. And to take an L our last year, it really hurt us.”
Tyler acknowledged that his class had seen some of the best seasons of Carolina Forest football, but they fell short of their state title goal.
“We made a lot of history,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s whoever can get there.”
That’s the next target for Morris. He’s taken a struggling program and turned it into one that’s expected to be in the playoff conversation in late November. It's a squad that can hang 42 points on the state’s top team, though beating that team is the goal.
“The way you get over the step is just keep battling at the door,” Morris said. “You’ve got to just keep getting in there and got to keep playing them and getting your opportunity with them and just keep doing everything you can. … We’re going to keep getting our chances at them, and we’re going to keep playing until we knock them off.”