Panthers stroll past Sharks, set up key 6-5A showdown

Carolina Forest is typically pretty reserved when it comes to what it attempts on special teams.

Jackson Weatherwax has been around long enough to know that history said it would be he and his teammates’ night, so he went ahead and took a chance. His long punt return added to an explosive first half as the Panthers rolled Region 6-5A foe St. James 55-13 and set up a monster game for next week.

“There was a lot going through my head,” Weatherwax said. “I told myself before the punt that I was going to try to take it.”

Weatherwax, who also had a pair of first-quarter receiving touchdowns, sandwiched those with the special teams score. On the return, the ball squibbed several yards while two St. James players closed in from the outside. Weatherwax didn’t hesitate, splitting the two and then out-racing several more while getting a couple of key blocks for the 70-yard score.

It wasn’t exactly the type of play Carolina Forest fans have seen much during the Marc Morris era. His kickoff unit almost always pooch kicks, and more often than not, returners are asked to call for a fair catch. It limits the potential for mistakes.

Then again, there may not have been all that much risk Friday. St. James had already botched two punt snaps that gave the Panthers the ball inside the red zone on each of their first two possessions – both of which were turned into touchdowns.

“Believe it or not,” Morris said, “We want him to catch it and move around with it a little bit.”

Thanks in part to Weatherwax doing just that, Carolina Forest led by five touchdowns at halftime  – with only Chris Anderson’s 68-yard touchdown run getting the Sharks on the board early – and then opened the second half with two more scores just for good measure. By the time that offensive outburst was over, quarterback Mason Garcia was a perfect 14-of-14 for 221 yards and three touchdown passes, Weatherwax had his three scores and tailbacks David Legette, Jeremy Green and Shane Youngblood had all punched at least one into the end zone.

It was similar to last year’s game, when Carolina Forest rushed for 357 yards and six touchdowns in a resounding 41-7 game that took place over two days because of storm delays. In total the Panthers are not 11-2 all-time against St. James, and Friday’s game was the ninth double-digit win in the series.

Like Carolina Forest (5-0, 2-0 Region 6-5A), West Florence certainly did its part to maximize the importance of next week’s game, which will take place at Memorial Stadium in Florence. The Knights (6-1, 2-0) dominated Socastee 63-15 on the road Friday to also stay undefeated in the division.

The Carolina Forest-West Florence game next week will all but decide the Region 6-5A title. That championship means even more this year, as the region champion will earn the potential of at least three guaranteed home playoff games given that team continues to win in the postseason.

“Our school has never had a home playoff game,” Weatherwax said. “Having three would be big.”

That’s seemingly miles away from reality, and the next step toward getting that opportunity will come against West. Still, the job Carolina Forest did against St. James was a near-perfect set-up game for the biggest one of the regular season.

“We try to win every play,” Morris said. “We try not to worry about the scoreboard or the opponent. Obviously when you have a performance like [Friday’s], you want that to carry over.”

Photo by Janet Morgan/myhorrynews

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