Carolina Forest football struggles to improve despite high enrollment

For The Sun NewsNovember 6, 2013 

Carolina Forest quarterback Will Brunson is on pace to throw for over 3,000 yards on the season, but his Panthers have struggled to find wins this season.

FILE PHOTO BY MATT SILFER — For The Sun News Buy Photo

By the time Carolina Forest’s rivalry game against rival Conway is over Friday night, Panthers quarterback Will Brunson may have eclipsed 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns for the season. Two receivers, Zavier Jones and Kyle Belack, have already topped 1,000 yards for the year.

And tight end Ryan Yurachek appears to be just three months away from signing with Marshall.

The team as a whole, however, will have a maximum of two wins.

It’s left head coach Drew Hummel in yet another uncomfortable spot toward the end of his eighth season. Carolina Forest will miss out on the postseason for the sixth straight year – the same time elapsed since the Panthers moved up to Class AAAA.

Carolina Forest went one step further this fall, as its enrollment has swelled to approximately 2,000 students and is considered one of the “Big 16” schools in the state. The growth on the football field, though, hasn’t mimicked the growth in enrollment.

“It’s been a frustrating year,” Hummel said. “We don’t like it; nobody likes it. We’re going to find answers, and we’re going to get it right. Everybody’s got an answer. We’re living in an age of quick gratification. Everybody wants to win. Nobody wants to win more than we do.”

Cause and effect

During a 53-minute interview with Hummel earlier this week, the coach made no fewer than 25 references to his offensive and defensive lines.

He talked about the biggest and best football programs in the state, and the types of players suiting up each week in the trenches. Simply, he believes many of his team’s scores the last two seasons have been a direct result of size.

“Every year when classes are coming in, we’re getting offensive and defensive line guys, so to speak, that are playing at the younger levels,” he said. “But the biggest thing, we don’t have the 6-3, 280-pound guys, a bunch of them. We have a couple of them, not a bunch of them.

“Our depth in the front is a big concern. When it’s all said and done, that’s where the games are won. We’ve got great kids here who work hard and do the things you ask them to do. But we don’t have, at this time, those types of bodies walking around.”

When Carolina Forest was playing one of the weakest schedules in all of Class AAAA a few years back, size wasn’t an issue. The Panthers were beating teams like Battery Creek and Kingstree en route to back-to-back 7-4 seasons in 2010 and 2011.

The schedule wasn’t desired – it actually stemmed from multiple contracts against bigger schools being negated or falling through at the last minute – and Hummel and the school were hammered publicly for playing so many teams from smaller classes. Those easy wins weren’t enough to push the Panthers into the playoffs, as the team struggled with the strength-of-schedule system used in Class AAAA.

Carolina Forest responded by going closer to the other extreme.

It replaced those small schools with some well-known and often successful teams from the largest class in the state: Goose Creek, White Knoll, Fort Dorchester and Beaufort. Those four teams have handed the Panthers eight double-digit losses over the last two seasons.

“It’s going to be very difficult to build a schedule that isn’t that type of schedule with the size of the school and the location of the school,” Carolina Forest Athletics Director Boe Rainbow said. “We can make all the excuses in the world we want to make. We have to make the best of it that we can.”

With Socastee moving up to Class AAAA and Region VI next year, the Panthers were able to scale back slightly on the non-region schedule for the next two-year block. The school has contracts with Class AAA teams Darlington, St. James, North Myrtle Beach and Myrtle Beach, and two Class AAAA non-region opponents, Lexington and Fort Dorchester.

With the right number of wins and a stronger Region VI-AAAA finish, it could help the Panthers finally do what West Ashley and Ashley Ridge, the two South Carolina Big 16 schools younger than Carolina Forest, already accomplished.

Make the playoffs.

The next decision

Hummel wants very much to continue what he started.

That doesn’t mean he’s immune to his environment.

Like all teams that struggle, the relatively small yet loyal fan base at Carolina Forest has complained vocally at games about some of the lopsided scores the last two years. Attendance at games has been hit or miss.

One fan went as far to write a lengthy guest editorial that was printed in the Carolina Forest Chronicle in October questioning leadership.

Even if those words and actions aren’t the feelings of everyone, they are being noticed.

Rainbow reiterated Wednesday that he will not discuss any personnel issues, real or speculative. All such decisions are on a case-by-case basis and handled at the end of the season.

Schools in Horry County have rarely removed coaches from their positions. When it does happen, wins and losses are even more rarely cited as the primary cause.

Hummel said he expected to return, although he did add the decision was out of his hands.

“I can’t worry about that,” Hummel said. “That’s up to the administration, and I understand that.”

Hummel is 30-56 in his eight seasons at Carolina Forest, a program he took over after contributing to some big-time wins and seasons at North Augusta as an assistant coach. While the winning ways haven’t necessary followed him, he has had success in other areas, especially recruiting.

In the last two years alone, Harold Atkinson (South Carolina State), Kyle Rice (Charleston Southern), Jarvez Holmes (Georgia Military), Christian Lewis (Tusculum), Danny Daly (Methodist) and Aaron Williams (Louisberg Junior College) have all used football to further their educations.

Yurachek will join suit this February. And Brunson, Belack, Jones and linebacker J.T. Hucks are all receiving interest for the Class of 2015.

Those returning for next fall will enter the season with plenty of optimism and hopes of that first trip to the Class AAAA state playoffs. It’s a goal that hasn’t yet been reached, and until it is, the frustration may only continue to increase.

“We’re excited about what we have back next year and what we have to do,” Hummel said. “Sometimes, you have to go through some serious growing pains to get guys there.”

Rainbow appropriately pointed out this is only the midway point of the team’s second four-year cycle in Class AAAA.

“We keep forgetting how young this whole program is. This school is only 16 years old,” he said. “Of course I want to win. Everybody wants to win. I’d expect it to move forward. The struggles come. It’s a challenge. But we have the responsibility of trying to make it better.”

Contact IAN GUERIN at ian@ianguerin.com.

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