Panthers’ gamble pays off in OT win over Lexington

Marc Morris had already showed his hand.

The Carolina Forest coach elected to go for it on fourth down four separate times during the second half of the team’s playoff game against Lexington. All four ended with his team giving the ball back to Wildcats.

So with the season coming down to one play, the fifth-year coach had already cleared those from his head and decided to gamble again.

Mason Garcia chased his fourth rushing touchdown of the night with a penalty-shortened two-point conversion run to give Carolina Forest a 36-35 overtime victory over Lexington at Coastal Carolina’s Brooks Stadium in Friday’s opening round of the Class 5A playoffs.

“We were going to kick the extra point and go to the second overtime,” Morris said of how his team lined up prior to a Wildcat offside penalty that took it half the distance to the goal. “We had that much confidence. Once we got the flag, our [offensive] line is what we hang our hat on. They made a big play and Mason got it in there for us.”

It completed what had been a contentious game throughout – unlike the lopsided victory to open the postseason last year against Lexington. This time, the teams exchanged just enough high and low points to keep it close. No team ever led by more than a touchdown, and both offenses sputtered some in the second half.

However, when it mattered most, the ball was back in Garcia’s hands. He scored three rushing touchdowns and connected with Jackson Weatherwax for another through the air, all in the first half. And then, after Lexington tied the game to send it to overtime.

After Lexington went up by another touchdown on quarterback Cal Herndon’s 5-yard pass to Nathan Baxley, Garcia did his thing twice more. He punched in the touchdown from 2 yards out and then converted the two-point conversion to end the game.

“[Morris] says we’re the best team he’s had under pressure,” Garcia said. “He just stuck with us and kept coaching hard. Coaches see the success in people and how they improve. He gives us trust.”

It wasn’t all about Garcia, obviously. Tailback David Legette finished with 188 yards on the ground, Jackson Weatherwax and Kyle Watkins combined for 200 yards receiving and the defense came up with several key stops – including interceptions from Marquis Allen and Jonathan Nelson.

But the bigger picture is how a team that not all that long ago was mired in what equated to more than a decade of playoff mediocrity has turned things around so fast. Friday was just the second time that Carolina Forest (8-1) earned the right to host a playoff game – with the 2004 first-round win over Darlington under interim coach Robby Brown serving as the other. That year, the then-Class 3A Panthers won nine overall games, including two in the playoffs. What followed, more often than not, was losing football.

Between 2005 and 2014, Carolina Forest was a combined 33-75. It qualified for the playoffs just once, in 2007, and lost by three touchdowns that year.

After Morris’ first season, however, change was occurring. This fall, the Panthers not only qualified for the postseason for the fourth consecutive season, they have now won at least one playoff game for the second straight year, a first in program history.

Even after the contest against Lexington (6-5) was moved to Brooks Stadium due to a virtually unplayable field on campus, the Panthers proved the brightest lights most of this team will every play under wasn’t too stressful of an environment to handle.

As a result, Carolina Forest will hit the road next week for a second-round match-up with No. 7 Summerville. Few expect the Panthers to pull off the upset. Then again, few also thought Carolina Forest could create a palate that included the regular taste of playoff victory.

“We believe we’re supposed to win,” Morris said. “We believe we’re supposed to win a state championship. We believe our kids are supposed to be there.”

Photo by Charles Perry/myhorrynews

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