Correction: Carolina Forest has reached the third round of the playoffs twice in its history (2004 and 1999). This story has been updated to reflect that information.
It took 21 years, three different classifications and five different head coaches, but Carolina Forest can finally say it is a region football champion.
The Panthers made quick work of Conway in the de facto Region VI-5A title game Friday, beating the Tigers 42-13 on their own field and continuing what has been the most impressive season in Carolina Forest history.
Expected or not, the first region crown for the program felt pretty darn good.
“In the second half [of the season], we came out and played ball to the best of our ability,” senior running back David Legette said, just a few months after he said that he and his teammates should be considered the frontrunners. “I feel like we’ve been playing really good football, executing.”
Carolina Forest backed that up with another big game from Legette and quarterback Mason Garcia — who combined to rush for 288 yards and six touchdowns — while the defense stuffed the on-again, off-again Conway offense and created three turnovers.
Not that any of that would shock anyone who has followed this team this season. All told, Carolina Forest defeated Conway, Socastee, St. James, South Florence and West Florence by an average of 46 points per game, with Friday’s being the closest of the bunch.
But sixth-year coach Marc Morris said the reason isn’t just because of the likes of Garcia and Legette, or even talented receivers Kyle Watkins and Josh Murphy or what has become a stout offensive line that rarely allows sacks or even many negative plays.
“Our turnaround to me is not scoring points. We’ve scored points since I’ve been there,” Morris said. “Our defense has played great all year long. To me, you don’t win state championships or go far in the playoffs with offense alone. You’ve got to play great defense. When I first got here … I said it starts on the defensive side of the ball and it sounded like a foreign language around here.”
Although not all of Friday’s contests from around the state had been compiled, the Panthers are going to finish the regular season as a top-five defense in Class 5A in terms of points per game allowed.
The latest effort toward that figure also earned the Panthers the most recent bragging rights in what has become much more of an actual rivalry between these two schools. Conway had won all 11 meetings in the series between 1999-2009. However, the Panthers and Tigers have split each of the last 10 games, including the latest, which was by far the most impactful game they had played against one another.
Both of these teams will be at home next week to open the Class 5A playoffs. Carolina Forest’s first region championship is coupled with a No. 1 overall seed, and Conway (3-6 overall, 3-2 inside Region VI-5A) — courtesy of a head-to-head tiebreaker over West Florence — will enter the postseason as a No. 2 seed.
Although the official playoff brackets will not be released until Saturday, it appears the Tigers will play host to Wando, which finished as the third place team in Region VII-5A.
For the Panthers — who are expected to play Cane Bay next week — it will be the school’s first true on-campus game as a member of the state’s largest classification. Last year, Carolina Forest finished second in the region but was forced to move its playoff opener to Coastal Carolina’s Brooks Stadium due to poor field conditions. That isn’t expected to be an issue next week in the opening round against Cane Bay, or, if everything goes to plan, even longer.
If they keep winning, the Panthers are guaranteed three home playoff games. However, for a team that is just getting used to its winning ways, looking that far ahead seems like a waste of time, anyway.
After all, this is a team that has reached the third round of the playoffs just twice in its history (2004, 1999) and has advanced to the second round just twice since it moved to the state’s largest classification in 2008.
Morris and his players have contended that the components are all there to finally buck that latter trend.
“We put in the work to get here,” Legette said. “But we’ve got a long way to go.”