When Carolina Forest’s season cranks up next week, it will begin with an abnormal amount of anticipation for a team that finished the prior year with such a loss-dominated record.
The Panthers were beat up, especially late in games, by a schedule few teams in the state could boast. Seven opponents, including five from the state’s largest class, went on to play postseason football.
Still, as the 2013 season gets ready to start, coach Drew Hummel’s team has the players and the experience to better navigate the 11-game slate.
“This group ranks right up there offensively with as good as we’ve had,” Hummel said. “Most of them had to go up against that gauntlet of a schedule as sophomores, having to step up and perform against guys two years older than they are. This is a very talented group.”
Quarterback Will Brunson is receiving plenty of interest from major football programs after passing for 2,321 yards and 18 touchdowns. Tight end Ryan Yurachek has already verbally committed to continue playing at Marshall. Tailback Napier Armstrong steps into the starting role after rushing for 582 yards last season. Top receivers Kyle Belack and Zavier Jones are also another year older, and the Panthers return three of its offensive linemen, including two-year starting center Trey Johnson.
What that group will have to do, however, is prove it can play when it matters most.
While several of those blowout losses from last year looked awfully ugly on paper, some only ended up so lopsided because of second-half deficiencies. Throughout the course of the season, the Panthers were outscored by 122 points after halftime.
It led to some hard feelings from players along the way. But it also taught a young group how to mentally prepare when things are going badly.
After all, that same beast of a schedule awaits Carolina Forest this season.
“Even with the schedule, we can’t let that be an excuse for losses or struggling,” Brunson said. “We just have to pad up and go and accept it. At the beginning, it was overwhelming. We were thrown into the fire. The best way I’ve heard it is it’s the same thing with South Carolina and Clemson. South Carolina fans can’t say ‘Oh, we play in the SEC. That’s why we don’t have as many wins.’ We just have to go out and play ball.”
Brunson and his teammates will open Friday at future region opponent Socastee, a team coming off an undefeated regular season and a trip to the third round of the Class AAA playoffs.
Then it’s on to Fort Dorchester before playing a stretch of four home games in five weeks. That span includes games against St. James, White Knoll, Myrtle Beach, Beaufort and Class AAAA powerhouse Goose Creek.
The schedule is loaded with teams that can put up points in a hurry. And while Hummel insists he doesn’t want to simply get into shootouts with those teams, the offense he’ll be putting on the field should be able to cut down on last season’s eight losses that came via double-digit point margins.
“When you look back at things and as we reviewed film, we’re right there through halftimes of games and going into the third and fourth quarter. There were very few that had been decided by that point,” he said. “With another year of experience, we’ll know how to play through a little bit of adversity.”