Lady Panthers find their stride this soccer season

Carolina Forest entered last season with a roster full of talented yet unproven ninth graders.

This year, the Panthers aren’t surprising anyone.

“Last year was kind of our big year,’” coach Will Hall said. “And then you get kind of excited. … You know you’ve got this whole team coming back.”

The Panthers are coming off a season where they went 16-5 and a stellar 9-1 in region play. They won the region crown and reached the second round of the 5A playoffs.

Considering they lost just one starter from that squad — they played seven freshmen in 2018 — expectations are much higher than they were a year ago.

“We’re starting to see the program grow because these players are now playing year-round soccer,” Hall said. “These girls, it’s their sport. And they start taking some ownership. … They want to prove themselves.”

The Panthers definitely have the talent to defend their region title.

Striker Lexi Lilly set the school record for goals scored by a freshman last year. And midfielder Emma Bucci plays elite level soccer in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Lilly, Bucci and Gabby Giracello each made the all-region team last year. All three are sophomores this spring.

That doesn’t even include center back Abbie McCoy, who was named the region’s top player in 2018.

“We look pretty strong,” Hall said in the understatement of the preseason.

The Panthers are also playing in a region that is arguably weaker this year.

West Florence, the lone region foe to beat them in 2018, lost many starters to graduation and is in rebuilding mode. Socastee is also trying to turn its program around and South Florence and Conway haven’t historically been contenders.

The biggest change in the region is the addition of St. James, which moved up from the 4A ranks and replaced Sumter on the Panthers’ schedule. The Sharks are the team that poses the greatest threat to the Panthers’ goal of repeating as region champs.

“They’ll probably be a program that we need to watch,” Hall said, pointing out that some of the Sharks also play club soccer.

This much is certain: other teams will be monitoring the formidable Panthers, who are also feeling the weight of lofty expectations.

“We have a lot of pressure on us to be the best team in the region this year,” McCoy, one of the team’s senior leaders, said. “Everybody knows we only lost one starting senior. And everybody knows we’re kind of all from Beach United and Coast FA [clubs]. … Everybody thinks that we’re going to be this powerhouse, so we need to meet the standards.”

Photo by Charles D Perry/myhorrynews

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