Carolina Forest’s football team will have a familiar look this fall.
That’s because the Panthers will return all but six starters from a team that went 8-2 last season and reached the second round of the 5A playoffs. The talent-rich roster includes veteran offensive and defensive lines, senior quarterback Mason Garcia, senior running back David Legette and receivers Josh Murphy (senior) and Kyle Watkins (junior).
“What people didn’t realize last year was how young we were,” coach Marc Morris said last week during spring practice. “Those guys did a great job competing and expecting to win. … I just hope we can carry it over to this year.”
The Panthers’ roster included just 13 seniors a season ago, but the team was loaded with players who had seen playing time as sophomores. That experience paid off.
Carolina Forest came close to winning the region, losing a 51-44 shootout at West Florence that kept them in second place.
Although the football landscape will be different this year, the Panthers remain optimistic. Carolina Forest lost just two offensive starters and four defensive starters to graduation.
“That’s a lot of guys returning that we expect to have the ball and be a big part [of the team],” Morris said.
Leading the offense will be Garcia, who has already received offers from several Division I programs, including Missouri, Syracuse and East Carolina.
“Mentally, [I’m] a lot stronger,” the quarterback said. “I just feel like I’ve grown in knowing football more at the varsity level, and just understanding the game more and understanding what I have to do to win.”
Garcia will have plenty of backfield help from Legette, who is coming off a breakout season where he averaged nearly 150 rushing yards per game. He also found the end zone 14 times.
Although the Panthers are losing top receiver Jackson Weatherwax (595 yards, eight touchdowns) to graduation, they will still have strong targets in Murphy (423 yards, four touchdowns) and Watkins (391 yards, two touchdowns).
They also have a strong class moving up from JV.
“We’ve got some talented guys to replace who we lost,” Morris said. “It’s getting them some game reps and getting them ready to go.”
Just like they did last year, expect the Panthers to bring a balanced attack.
“You know us,” Morris said. “We’re going to run the ball and throw it about equally if we can.”
On paper at least, Carolina Forest should be a contender for a region title. But Morris knows how tough winning that crown can be.
“Our region’s going to be very good every year,” he said. “Conway does a great job. Obviously, West Florence had the best team last year and beat us in a great football game. … You can go on and on about everybody. They all do a great job coaching and have their kids prepared. It’s going to be a tough region again.”