Carolina Forest freshmen leading youth movement

The freshman’s goals floored Will Hall.

Before the soccer season began, a small striker named Lexi Lilly told the Carolina Forest High girls coach she wanted to set the school record for most goals scored by a freshman. She then declared her intention to break the mark for most goals scored in a CFHS career.

“You don’t get a lot of kids at the age that they can’t even drive a car yet who are coming out there going, ‘This is a goal I’m setting for myself and I’m going to get after it,’” Hall said. “You’ve seen how tiny she is. She’s thrown all over the field. She gets stomped on all the time. And she dusts herself back off and gets back up there and goes at it again.”

As this season has proven, Lilly’s aspirations are not unreasonable. She needs just two goals to tie the school’s freshman scoring record (19) and the second half of region play hasn’t even started. In some ways, her outsized ambitions mirror those of this maturing Panthers squad, which entered the season starting six freshmen and is now tied for first place in the region.

The young team’s quick success has exceeded the expectations of their coach as well as some of the club’s veteran players, who had watched their team’s freshmen play on JV last year.

“I knew that we were going to have good talent coming up, but I am surprised that it’s happened so quickly, that we’ve gotten this much better just this year,” said defender Sara Padula, the team’s lone senior starter. “By the time they’re seniors, we’re going to be amazing.”

Three of Hall’s forwards are first-year varsity players, and at times the team starts as many as seven freshmen.

Along with Lilly, the roster’s Class of 2021 includes Reilly Ward, Ashtyn Perry, Allysa Niles, Kacey Miller, Emma Bucci, Emma Hamilton, Sidney Croland and Gabby Giracello.

“Once I saw the team together and our first few practices, I was really excited,” Lilly said. “We all instantly clicked. We were all of a sudden like one huge family. … People could see we were special.”

Before JV, some of the girls had played club soccer together. During the initial practices, the team’s chemistry was obvious. Players were calling out each other’s names and precisely timing runs. Their communication hit mid-season form before the region games started.

“This team has developed faster than other teams in the past that I’ve coached,” Hall said. “It’s hard for freshmen to come onto a team at a varsity level yelling at each other. Normally that’s something that’s developed over time.”

The Panthers opened the season by winning the Cavalier Kick Off in Columbia. They also had a strong showing at the Smoky Mountain Cup in Tennessee.

When the season began, Hall wasn’t sure how his defense would hold up against more mature forwards. Like everything else this season, that too was a surprise.

“I felt that our defense was going to be the weakest part of the team, and that has been far from it,” he said. “Our defense has been one of the strongest defenses in every match we’ve ever played in.”

The season hasn’t been perfect. There was a late-game meltdown against Myrtle Beach and a tough 2-1 loss at West Florence to open region play. Goalkeeper Cameron McWhorter is out with an Achilles injury and Hall doesn’t know when she will return.

But the Panthers (10-4, 4-1 region) have won four consecutive region games, including last week’s 4-1 triumph in a rematch against West Florence.

Carolina Forest has not played Socastee yet — the first match was rained out — but players are optimistic about their chances in the region.

“We’re a formidable competitor to all the other teams,” Padula said.

Hall worries about his team staying healthy, especially with McWhorter already hurt. But he knows that regardless of what happens in the second half of the season, the foundation is set for future years.

“The exciting part for me,” he said, “is they’re coming back.”

– Photo by Charles D. Perry/myhorrynews

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