Despite turnover, Panthers continue region dominance

Avery Campbell didn’t expect to celebrate a region championship this year.

Heading into the season, the sophomore setter figured that with a new coach, just two seniors and a lineup still searching for chemistry, this Carolina Forest volleyball team would be laying the foundation to compete in future years.

She’s happy to be wrong.

“Very surprised,” Campbell said Thursday night after the Panthers clinched the region title. “I thought it would take more time for us to come together, but it just clicked from the start.”

Carolina Forest (12-9, 9-1 region) swept South Florence 3-0 in their final contest of the regular season. They will host a playoff game Tuesday.

“It honestly makes everything worth it,” said senior captain Kaitlyn Andresen. “It makes all four years, everything you’ve worked for, all of it worth it. And it made my team proud and it made me proud.”

Although successful, the season was a strange one for Carolina Forest. Players missed weeks of school and practice because of Hurricane Florence. Then they jumped into a crammed game schedule.

For head coach Connor Cooper, the championship validated his team’s dedication.

“I am so, so, so proud of them,” he said. “We’re a very young team, and that’s often looked down upon. We’re playing teams that have more than five seniors on their roster, and they’re stepping up and playing with the best of them.”

Although the Panthers struggled in tournament play, they dominated region competition. Their lone loss came at Socastee and that match went five sets, as did the Panthers’ home victory over the Braves.

An English teacher, Cooper came to CFHS from Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina. That’s where he did his student teaching served as a JV coach and an assistant to the varsity team.

At Carolina Forest, he replaced veteran volleyball coach Brittany Drew, who coached at the school for 15 years before stepping down this year.

The Panthers won the region in 2017, but they did so with the help of Alexis Tomlin, who graduated in June after becoming the first Carolina Forest volleyball player to notch 1,000 kills.

Yet even without a star, the Panthers thrived. They received strong contributions from Andresen and Campbell, as well as co-captain Fallon Tomlin, senior Zaria Frederick and middle blocker Emma Morgan.

“I was really lucky to get this group of girls my first year,” Cooper said.

The players expressed gratitude for their coach and their teammates. They’re also not content with a region title. If they continue winning, they are guaranteed at least two home playoff matches.

“No matter how young we are, we can still come together [and win],” Campbell said. “And we still have a lot more to go.”

Photo by Joel Beachum

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