Golfer Madison Marion

Carolina Forest golfer Madison Marion watches her shot at this week’s lower state tournament at Shaftesbury Glen. The Panthers tied St. James for third place at the event.

Carolina Forest’s girls golf team entered this season with one goal: win the 5A state championship.

That’s still possible — the Panthers qualified for the state tournament with a strong finish at the lower state event this week — but they will have to overcome losing their top player Mia Gray to a knee injury.

“It’s really disappointing this year,” coach Mike Gray said. “She’s an all-star. We had a really good chance at winning states [with her] this year — at least giving Lexington a run for their money. … It’s a bummer.”

Despite losing the star sophomore, the Panthers have seen impressive play from seniors Victoria Callahan and Alayna Fortenberry. Fortenberry tied for an individual third-place finish at lower state and Callahan tied for 13th. The team has also benefitted from the improvement of freshman Gracelyn Toler and eighth grader Savannah Sansom.

“The girls are all really solid,” coach Mike Gray said. “There’s been a few big surprises this year from our No. 3 and No. 4.”

For example, Toler, the team’s No. 4 player, shot in the 120s last year. She put up at 85 at the lower state competition.

“She’s been a really pleasant surprise,” the coach said. “She’s worked hard.”

Sansom, the No. 3 player, has also improved. She shot in the 90s last year and put up an 81 in when the Panthers won the region competition.

“She’s on the cusp, too, of being really good,” Mike Gray said.

When the season started, the team had its full compliment of players. Mia Gray played a few matches and was averaging scores of three under par. Then a nagging knee injury ended her season early. She’s expected to have exploratory surgery next week.

“It’s been horrible missing her,” said Mike Gray, who is also Mia Gray’s father.

Despite the loss, the players have tried to focus on handling their business on the course. Carolina Forest won their second straight region championship this month, and they tied St. James for third place at lower state, finishing behind powerhouse Lexington, the winner, and second-place Wando.

“They’re just chugging along,” Mike Gray said of his golfers. “They’re all disappointed for sure. They all knew this was the season to do it. This was the best chance we had.”

But, as the coach acknowledged, anything could happen at next week’s state championship in Lexington. And even if the Panthers can’t pull off the upset, the future is bright if Mia Gray gets healthy and Toler and Sansom continue their upward trajectory.

“If those kids that have been really surprising me, the 3 and the 4 players, come along, we’ll be OK next year,” he said.

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