Carolina Forest has what it believes to be the best team in coach Drew Hummel's five years.
Now, it appears the Panthers will have the facilities to go along with it.
Courtesy of some county appropriations, Carolina Forest is one of a handful of area schools that are getting some major improvements. Most noticeably will be a 5,500-square-foot field house that is being built behind the west end zone at Panther Stadium.
"I think it's one of the big steps," Hummel said. "We've been asking [for] this. We have a lot of our players coming back off a 7-4 team. Our kids are expecting big things. This is kind of a calling card [for the Carolina Forest] program. ... It can do nothing but help us."
The field house will include two locker rooms, one for the Panthers' varsity squad and another to be split between the junior varsity and visiting teams. There will also be a satellite training room, laundry room and space for officials.
The addition will prevent both Carolina Forest and opponents from doing last-second game preparation either outside or a few hundred yards away at the school.
"I've been wishing that for five years," Hummel said. "It's a big asset for things on Friday nights. That's a long walk from the school down there.
"When rain comes at halftimes, there's nowhere to go."
The project - which hit a minor dirt snag early in the process but has been solved - is expected to be completed by June 30.
Similar improvements are taking place at Loris and St. James, as well as others.
The Panthers will also have another addition in place for the start of the 2011 season. Visiting fans will now have a separate concession stand and set of restrooms on their side, lessening foot traffic on game nights.
Hummel has already seen some of the benefits of his team's 2010 season.
For starters, college recruiters have found a number of Panthers worthy of strong consideration. Receiver Jarvez Holmes, a rising senior, is getting interest from Georgia Tech and Illinois, among others. Quarterback Danny Daly is drawing interest from a number of NCAA Division I-AA programs.
But the biggest name of them all - rising junior Harold Atkinson - is starting to have some programs drooling already. Hummel said Atkins, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound running back, recently took a trip to The Citadel, only to have the Bulldogs coaches say they believed Atkins would go to the top tier of college football.
"We've got most of our skill guys back. Harold is going to be the ball guy," Hummel said. "I can't imagine a scenario where he isn't going to get the ball 20-25 times a night. We've got to get the ball to those receivers, too."
Daly, who has a full year of starting under his belt, should have the experience to help make the Panthers a throw-or-run threat on every play.
That offensive variety isn't the only thing raising interest. Hummel said that last season's success has piqued interest among students at the school.
The coaching staff fed off that, getting increased work in the weight room and then letting the players know they were getting new uniforms for the first time in two seasons.
"Coming off the end of the season, the big win over Conway [the first in school history], with the field house and all the people coming back - we really feel we have this thing going in the right direction," the coach said. "We couldn't have had a better offseason."
It won't shock the coach if tryouts are as full as they've ever been. Carolina Forest's spring practices begin May 2 and conclude with the annual spring game May 19.
The Panthers' 2011 season opens at Socastee on Aug. 19.
Region VIII-AAA mayhem
If the baseball teams in Region VIII-AAA needed another reminder of the league's parity from year to year, Myrtle Beach provided it a week ago when it took down St. James.
The Sharks were ranked No. 33 in the country by Perfect Game prior to that loss.
No team has won the region in back-to-back seasons in more than a decade, however.
The Seahawks soon after got their taste of upset in a loss to North Myrtle Beach on Friday, Myrtle Beach's first region loss.
"I said that to our kids Friday night," Myrtle Beach coach Tim Christy said. "Even though we played poorly and lost, we're still in first place. And we hold the tie-breaker. That's why I like our league. ... You don't have to come up with something to motivate your kids."
Five of the six region teams appear to be in contention. Socastee has struggled to a 0-5 start in league play, but the other five have either two or three wins going into today's games.
The league may ultimately be decided by which teams' starting pitchers are able to do the most damage. For Myrtle Beach, ace Alex Roberts proved his ability against St. James. Roberts pitched a complete-game six-hitter against the Sharks. He didn't walk a single batter.
"The most important number to me was he only threw 92 pitches," Christy said of Roberts, who outdueled St. James ace Anthony Cossentino. "The big thing is efficiency. If you don't walk people, you're always going to have a chance."
Runyon committed to Alabama
Carolina Forest's Marisa Runyon got what could be described as an unbelievable offer.
And the Panthers' sophomore jumped all over it.
Runyon, who is batting above .500 and has a slugging percentage of about 1.260 this season, recently committed to play college softball at the University of Alabama after the school's coaches extended her a scholarship offer. The Tide has spent a large portion of this season ranked No. 1 nationally
According to Carolina Forest coach Sarah Minchew, it was a product of Runyon's steady progression.
"Basically, they are able to recognize the talent level that's there," Minchew said. "You can see as a seventh-grader, she had a talent that doesn't come around often. She's been slowly but surely able to develop it. She can hit for power, but she's a contact hitter. That's almost unheard of, I think.
"I don't see her peaking as a sophomore."
Runyon, who also played for the highly competitive Lightning travel team based out of North Carolina during the summer, has been on the varsity team at Carolina Forest since she was 13 years old.
She was named to The Sun News' Toast of the Coast team as a freshman, and she was also recently named All-Region VI-AAAA in basketball.
"She's just an athlete," Minchew said. "She's just one of those kids who doesn't need a lot of fine-tuning, even as a sophomore."
Minchew said that Alabama's top competition for Runyon was South Carolina and Tennessee.