While Carolina Forest was going through a blowout loss to arguably the best team in the state last week, something indirectly beneficial was happening closer to home.
The teams with the two best non-region records in Region VI-AAAA, West Florence and South Florence, lost in their region openers to a pair of divisional teams with losing records.
No, it didn’t take some of the sting off of the Panthers’ near-winless start to the season. But it showed that a beefed up schedule that presented a bunch of losses may not be that big of a deal. Carolina Forest believes is just as much in the running for one of the region’s three playoff spots as anyone else.
“I think confidence is overrated,” coach Drew Hummel said, referring to how the Panthers ran roughshod through a weak non-region slate the last two years. “The region schedule is what matters to get in [to the playoffs]. That’s what we’re shooting for anyway, even if we had won all of these. We were confident last year. But we were not prepared. We were not prepared for the stretch run, seeing South Florence, Sumter, Conway, West [Florence]. That was four of the better teams, maybe all of them better than what we played in the non-region.
“The speed shocks you. The size shocks you.”
That won’t happen this year.
As the Panthers prepare for Friday’s region opener against South Florence (5-2, 0-1), Carolina Forest has seen some of the toughest teams in the state. There was last week’s defeat to Goose Creek, the No. 15 team in the USA Today Super 25 rankings.
Fort Dorchester, a Big 16 program (like Carolina Forest), presented some of the biggest and fastest players the Panthers will see all year. White Knoll (6-1) is quickly becoming a team to watch out of Region V-AAAA.
And two of the three Class AAA programs it played – Socastee and Myrtle Beach – may have just one loss between them when the regular season is completed.
It’s presented a major difference in terms of wins and losses, from the last two seasons. Both years, Carolina Forest started 5-1 and blew out overmatched opponents. It made the record look appealing, but it did nothing for when the real games started.
“It’s a lot tougher competition, so of course it’s not going to be a breeze like it has the last couple years,” senior tailback Harold Atkinson said. “The non-region schedule is really going to help us, make region easier. I’m glad Coach Hummel put [together] the schedule he did. It can make us stronger.”
While looking at the Class AAAA point system may be premature, it’s interesting to note exactly where the Panthers stand this year as opposed to last.
Through seven games last year, the Panthers were 6-1 and had amassed exactly 21 points in the system that not only determines at-large playoff spots but also tie-breakers between region teams.
This season, at 1-6, Carolina Forest has earned the same amount – 21.
So while the record may look like the Panthers have gone in the tank, they are actually on the same footing as they were a year ago with four games remaining.
Now, here’s the kicker.
Lugoff-Elgin’s departure from Region VI-AAAA left this as a five-team field. Each team’s immediate playoff fate will come via just four games. Carolina Forest, courtesy of a scheduling quirk, received three home region games this season. Friday’s game against South Florence, next week’s game against Sumter and the regular-season finale against Conway will all take place at home.
Not only, then, have the Panthers played competition that will better prepare them for the last four games, they also get the benefit of very little travel the rest of the way. It could be the difference in making the playoffs for the first time since moving to the state’s biggest class.
If nothing else, Carolina Forest’s schedule to this point has eliminated the fear factor.
“There’s nothing out there that will intimidate you,” Hummel said. “There’s nothing out there that will shock-and-awe you. Now, it’s just about us doing what we do and executing.”