Nothing worth having is given freely or easily.
Upon taking the job at Carolina Forest, Marc Morris had a distinct vision of what he wanted the football program to look like.
Arriving after a two-year stretch in which the Panthers had only won three games, the program was in desperate need of a facelift. Much of that had to start with creating a relationship with players within the program, hoping with an understanding of what he was asking of them, they would eventually buy in.
“I think one thing kids will get excited about is the tempo we play at,” Morris said shortly after he was hired. “Once they get out there and see what we do, we put a lot of faith in our quarterback.
“I think we like the system because it’s so multiple. It goes to a large range of kids. … We can adapt it to the kids themselves.”
Previously, Morris helped create a winning culture at Harnett Central and Cleveland high schools in North Carolina. Now, his Carolina Forest team seems to be rowing in that exact direction.
There are 20 of us, a coach’s dream. We’ve seen all the good and the bad. But we’ve also worked so hard, and believe we are starting to see some of that pay off. Every game, we expect to go in and play well.
Carolina Forest senior running back Dyverse Simmons
Few appreciate that more than this year’s group of seniors, who can still vividly remember the pain of days they would come to the stadium figuring their team didn’t have a chance to win. These days, the Panthers not only hope to win – they expect to do so.
“There are 20 of us, a coach’s dream,” said Carolina Forest running back Dyverse Simmons. “We’ve seen all the good and the bad. But we’ve also worked so hard, and believe we are starting to see some of that pay off. Every game, we expect to go in and play well.”
Much of that starts with possessing a dependable running game. A staple of a Morris-engineered offense, Carolina Forest is staying true to form, rushing for 777 yards through two games.
“I’ve always believed that if you can run the ball, it’s going to be really hard for teams to beat you,” Morris said. “We pride ourselves on being able to do so. Of course, you like to believe your defense can stop people … and I do. But a solid running game keeps the opposing offense off the field, it also can be used as another form of defense.”
Simmons has 469 of those, putting him well on pace for a second consecutive 2,000-yard season. Football is a team game, however, and though the Carolina Forest standout knows gets more than his share of headlines, he is quick to remind all none of this is capable by himself.
“I am nothing without my offensive line, my teammates,” Simmons said. “It’s just a blessing to be able to play with these guys, we’re like a family out here.”
In moments of distress, the family-like atmosphere among the Carolina Forest seniors was tested most.
Early on in the Panthers’ season opener at Fairmont (N.C.), wide receiver Damon McDowell was severely injured, and eventually diagnosed with a broken leg. The senior’s football campaign he and the rest of his teammates were looking forward to was suddenly altered beyond repair.
While emotional, the mature group instead accepted the challenge now in front of them to replace one of the team’s key cogs. In fact, some took on additional duties in an effort to fill the void.
It starts through the week, me and my teammates get after it very good (in practice) and it carries over to Friday nights. ... We have a team with a lot of character. A lot of big players that will show up every night.
Carolina Forest all-purpose man Ishmael Garcia
Among those picking up the slack was Ishmael Garcia, asked to step in and play wide receiver and safety. His presence paid big dividends last week against St. James, hauling in four passes for 49 yards and a touchdown, in addition to picking off a pass.
“Guys like Ishmael Garcia, Richmond Collier and Anthony McAfee ... we ask a lot of those guys,” Morris said. “I’m not a big proponent of players (playing on offense and defense), but the way the team is set up right now, and the injury to (McDowell), there will be some kids we need to step up.”
According to Garcia, it is a mindset that begins once the team steps foot on the practice field.
“It starts through the week, me and my teammates get after it very good (in practice) and it carries over to Friday nights,” Garcia said. “... We have a team with a lot of character. A lot of big players that will show up every night.”
Of course, every team believes it has the potential to accomplish its goals – and Carolina Forest is no different. Morris has that belief as well, though he looks at the possibility of doing so much differently than others.
“We’re just trying to win the next play, win the next quarter and hopefully win the game,” he said. “Having a mature group certainly helps. But still, we’re just worried about us and how we can get better, and what we need to do to achieve that ... and you know we are far from that.
“There is still a long way to go.”