Lady Panthers charge into playoffs as region champs

When Katie Kulick drove the ball past the West Florence keeper earlier this month, the penalty kick meant more than the junior’s first goal of the season.

The shot in the upper left corner capped a furious three-goal rally in a 4-1 win over West Florence, the Panthers’ rival and the only region team to defeat them this season. It also put an exclamation point on the second straight region title for Carolina Forest.

“So far, that’s my best memory from all three years I’ve been on the team,” Kulick, the team’s stopper, said. “I was like, ‘Alright. We just did that.’”

And the Panthers hope to do much more. Although West Florence and Carolina Forest finished the regular season with identical 9-1 region records, the Panthers outscored the Knights in their head-to-head matches, meaning Carolina Forest holds a No. 1 seed for the playoffs.

The Panthers will begin the postseason at home on Monday. If they keep winning, the earliest they would play a road game would be the third round. Carolina Forest lost to River Bluff in the second round a year ago and players are optimistic they can make a deeper run this spring.

“We have a solid chance,” said senior Paige Petrizzo. “We have very good chemistry on the field.”

Coach Will Hall agrees.

When the Panthers won the region last year, the freshman-laden team was a pleasant surprise. This year, however, Hall expected players to elevate their game and they responded, going 18-4 over the regular season.

“They stepped it up a notch coming into this year,” Hall said.

Throughout the season, defense has anchored the team. Led by senior captain and reigning region player of the year Abbie McCoy, the lineup of Kulick, Maddie Zettergren, Gabby Giracello and keeper Cameron McWhorter stifled opposing offenses. Even their defeats weren’t ugly. Each of Carolina Forest’s losses has been by a single goal.

“We have a solid defense,” Hall said. “Our low-scoring games go to show it. … They kept us in the fight.”

Hall attributes part of the team’s success to the maturity of its sophomore stars, but he also stressed the players have grown closer as a group.

“These girls are there for each other off the field,” he said. “A lot of them hang out on the weekends. They’re there for each other academically. The chemistry goes outside of the field. When that happens, you’ve got 16 girls that all share a common goal. They all know what it means to each other.”

– Photo by Charles D. Perry/myhorrynews

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