Lexi Lilly

Carolina Forest's Lexi Lilly dribbles the ball during a 1-0 win over St. James earlier this season. The team defeated White Knoll 2-1 Thursday to advance to the lower state title game. 

The halftime speech started a bit heavy-handed, Carolina Forest girls soccer coach Will Hall even going as far as to tell one of his players she was on the brink of getting replaced in the lineup.

Moment later, the entire group was laughing together.

Moments after that, they’d turned the tide.

The Panthers advanced to their first lower state finals appearance in program history with a 2-1, come-from-behind win over White Knoll at the North Myrtle Beach Park and Sports Complex by not only accepting some of that tough love, but also applying it.

“Even at halftime, I knew we could score. I had to stay on top of them,” Hall said. “I hold the girls to a high standard. They know that. The team kind of hates me for it, but it's this, where it pays it off. When I’m getting on to them, I need them to know I’m serious. Then, we relax. Play to have fun. I don’t want to say shock-and-awe, but I want them engaged.”

The Panthers took it all to heart.

They went on the attack early in the second half, and midfielder Emma Hamilton’s shot from just outside the corner of the box sailed over White Knoll goalie Bree Hilton’s head and into the goal with 30 minutes left in regulation. It was just her third goal of the season, but it was a big one that changed momentum.

“My coaches,” she said, “will even tell you that’s my spot.”

The mood then shifted even more.

Just five minutes later, leading scorer Lexi Lilly’s header from inside 5 feet put the Panthers up for good. From there, they staved off several White Knoll runs and defended well enough to hold on. (It didn’t hurt that the Wolves (10-5-1) played the final seven minutes down a player after forward Maleah Perry picked up her second yellow card of the game.)

The end result bucked a trend in which Carolina Forest played well in the regular season — even winning region crowns — but then stumbled in the postseason. It certainly looked like that was again possible after Timberwolves sophomore Kaley Carter knocked in the team’s go-ahead goal just prior to halftime.

Instead, the Panthers rebounded and will head to Wando for the Class 5A lower state finals on Monday with a trip to Columbia on the line for the state championship. They’ll take a stout defense, one that has now allowed just six goals all season, and the knowledge that a little halftime deficit doesn’t automatically mean the end of the season.

Although this was just the second time Carolina Forest trailed at that point all year, it turns out what the Panthers heard from Hall Thursday wasn’t so different after all. 

“Getting our confidence back up, that helps,” Hamilton said. “That typically happens during halftime. We regroup.

“After this game, we’re in it now. We’re past that state. Yes, we were a little bit nervous, but we connected.”

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236

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