Panthers on a mission for third round of state duals

After claiming its third consecutive Region 6-5A wrestling championship last weekend, Carolina Forest can turn its attention to reaching another No. 3 – the third round of the SCHSL State Duals tournament.

The Class 5A Lower State semifinals are unchartered territory for the program, but this year’s senior-laden squad – under the leadership of a first-year head coach with title experience – could become the first team to reach the elusive third round in program history. The top-seeded Panthers earned the right to host the first two rounds of the playoffs, beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday. They will face Stratford in the opening round for the right to meet the winner between Lexington and Goose Creek.

“We made it to the first round my first year as an assistant, and we made it to the second round last year, but that’s the deepest this program has ever gone before,” said Forrest Blake, who took over as head coach this season after serving two years as an assistant at Carolina Forest. “That’s our goal this season: To get to the third round on Monday night (Feb. 5), and then anything can happen. With seven or eight senior starters, I feel real good about our chances.”

Blake knows what he’s talking about when it comes to state tournaments. He won five (three individual and two team) state championships as head coach at Bandys High in North Carolina before coming to Carolina Forest. He served as an assistant for two seasons before switching positions with Joshua Testa, providing some much-needed stability to a program that has seen four head coaches in a six-year span.

“I think being an assistant for two years before Coach Testa stepped down really helped make the transition go smoother,” said Blake, who was named the Region 6-5A Coach of the Year in his first season. “I already knew the kids and they were comfortable with me. I was a championship coach in North Carolina so this isn’t my first rodeo. I’d like to build that kind of program here.”

Senior P.J. Wunderlich is one of those seniors who survived the revolving door of coaches at Carolina Forest, and he can see the impact of having the same leadership in place. “Every single practice I see us having fun with the coaches,” he said. “Some of them are our teachers too, and they care about us. We know when it’s time to get serious, but it’s also a lot of fun.”

Blake knows that building a championship-caliber program is more than a one-man job. He is trying to instill the importance of a team environment in what many consider an individual sport, which means wrestlers helping one another improve. Blake’s strong senior class has taken that role seriously, he said, and the Panthers should continue to reap dividends down the road.

“The veterans do a great job of mentoring the younger guys because they want to have a good team,” Blake said. “Wrestling is an individual sport but there’s also a big team aspect. Our older guys help our younger guys get better, and next year those guys will have to step up and mentor the next group. That’s how you build a winning program, and that’s what we’re trying to do here at Carolina Forest.”

Wunderlich and his fellow seniors hope to leave a lasting impression on the program, but they know this is their last chance to be the ones who break through to new territory for the team. They hope their fans and classmates will turn out in droves Saturday to see them try to make school history and take the first steps toward becoming a state title contender.

“I’m very confident about our chances with the way that we’re wrestling right now,” Wunderlich said. “We have had some good teams in the past but we have had a hard time beating the really good teams. This year is a different story. I think this year we’re going to beat those good teams and show that we belong.”

Photo courtesy of myhorrynews.com

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