Panthers prepare for tough first-round playoff test

In the last five years, Carolina Forest coach Marc Morris has found himself getting ready for Lexington on a regular basis.

After inheriting two early regular-season games against the Wildcats from the previous coaching staff’s scheduling, Morris is now preparing for a second consecutive first-round home game against the Midlands squad that is three hours away by bus. Those four games against Lexington match the most times the Panthers have played any non-region opponent during his tenure, with Carolina Forest also having played Myrtle Beach four times in that span.

It would be easy to think the Panthers’ staff is rolling out much of the same game plan when it hosts Lexington.

Not so fast.

“We start from scratch. The way turnover happens so much, it’s new from one year to the next,” Morris said. “[Lexington coach] Perry [Woolbright] does a good job. But any time you change a quarterback, what you do on offense is going to change.”

Morris could have been talking about either team.

Lexington’s Chase Crouch is no longer calling the signals for the Wildcats; that’s now Cal Herndon’s job. Much the same for Carolina Forest, Morris’ team has transitioned fully to Mason Garcia after Matt Beale’s three-year run as the starter.

That’s not all.

The teams’ respective top running backs have changed names – with both Carolina Forest’s David Legette and Lexington’s Akeem Nicholas having eclipsed 1,100 yards already this season in their first year as the dedicated starters.

Still, neither team is completely ignoring what happened a year ago, when the Panthers scored 27 second-half points and eventually won 34-21.

“It’s motivation,” said Woolbright, who got his first head coaching job at North Myrtle Beach in 2010 before departing for the Columbia area. “We jumped out to a 14-0 lead and then we didn’t play well the rest of the way. We need to make sure we show up to play.”

Thanks to their region finishes, the biggest change between the two teams this time around will be the scenery.

Carolina Forest earned its first home playoff game since moving to the state’s largest classification in 2008 and only its second home playoff game ever (the other coming in 2004). It’s the next step in a natural progression of a team that has been trending upward since Morris took over the program in 2014.

This fall, Legette and Garcia have gotten most of the attention because of their combined 2,800 total yards and 28 touchdowns. The defense is also among the top 10 in the classification in terms of points per game allowed (18.5)

It all added up to guarantee the team its highest ever winning percentage in a single year. In getting to that point, Carolina Forest fell just one touchdown shy of an undefeated regular season and a Region VI-5A title. Many are already considering Carolina Forest the favorite in 2019, but even if Morris’ squad is starting to build toward that, he’s not willing to abandon the opportunity in front of him.

That begins with making the most of a first-round home game.

“It’s a growing thing,” he said. “When you come in and turn a team around, there are just certain steps. Playing home playoff games is the next step. You look at the teams who are really, really good, and they’re playing a bunch of home playoff games every year.

“Next year is not guaranteed. You try to get as much as you can each and every year. Everybody anticipates certain players to be playing and it doesn’t pan out. You try to build your program the best you can. If you get a good run in the playoffs, you can do that.”

Friday’s first-round games:

Class 5A
Lexington at Carolina Forest
Conway at River Bluff
Class 4A
Dreher at Myrtle Beach
North Myrtle Beach at South Aiken

Photo by Janet Morgan/myhorrynews

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