JEFFERSON — Rich McWhorter is not one for hype.
The second-year Jackson County coach is already downplaying what could be the biggest opportunity for the program, since, well, maybe ever.
The Panthers (2-2, 1-0 Region 8-5A) travel to Clarke Central (2-2, 1-0 Region 8-5A) on Friday with a shot at not only making a name for the program but also setting themselves up for a possible run at a Region 8-5A title.
“We’re definitely excited about the chance we have this week,” he said. “But it’s also just the next game in a long region schedule. A lot can happen after this week no matter what happens."
A win would put them in the early lead in the region standings with just Eastside and Greenbrier left with games against teams sporting a winning record.
“Look, a win would be great, for sure,” he said. “But all it would really mean at this point in the season is that we’d be 3-2 and the pizza afterwards would probably taste a little better. We would still have a lot of laundry to do no matter what.”
McWhorter’s apprehension probably stems from knowing that several obstacles await his Panthers. Jackson County has never beaten the Gladiators in its history (0-6 all-time) and has never won a game in Athens against a Athens-area public school (0-4 lifetime vs. Cedar Shoals). The Gladiators, though young at several key spots, are as talented as ever and are trying to shake off a tough start while finding the right combinations themselves.
The game will showcase perhaps the two best defenses in the region. The Panthers’ defense (14.0 ppg) has been solid all season behind guys like senior LB Colton Boone (33 tkl), junior LB JT Sosebee (29 tkl, 6 TFL), and senior DL Andrew King, who has 23 tkl, 11 TFL, and 2 sacks in just 3 games. The Gladiators are yielding 18.5 ppg but take out Buford’s 47 and they have given up just 27 points (9.0 ppg) in their other three contests.
Which means, the key will be which offense can sustain drives. Penalties and inconsistency have plagued both offensive units in 2020.
The Panthers, who lost starting QB Connor Bejin for the season against Franklin County, have been limited to just 69 points (17.2 ppg) and had multiple touchdowns called back in losses to Stephens County and Franklin County. Junior running back Tra Ransom, however, has provided some consistency in the run game. Last week, senior Jake Stinchcomb and junior Isaiah Maxey split time under center for Jackson County. Maxey had a touchdown run and a TD pass in a 20-0 win over Walnut Grove last week.
The Gladiators, meanwhile, are averaging just 11.2 ppg, significantly down from the 33.4 ppg they posted in 2019.
“I think both teams right now are very similar on both sides of the ball,” McWhorter said. “Our defense has played very well all season. I feel we can have another good game.
“But (Clarke Central) are by far the most talented team we’ve seen, and will face, all year. It will come down to which offense executes the best. We cannot turn the ball over and get behind the chains. It’s hard to win a football game at any level when you’re constantly behind the chains.”
Not since going into the first round of the 2017 playoffs at 5-5 have the Panthers faced such an opportunity. A win that night would have secured their first-ever GHSA playoff win and a first non-losing season since 2012.
McWhorter acknowledged that the staff and players understand what is at stake.
“I think our guys are a lot more confident this year than last, no doubt,” he said. “They have played with tremendous effort all year. We feel this is a winnable game because we always go into a game thinking we can win.
“But we’re going to have to play with the same level of intensity and effort that we have been all year. It’s going to be a huge challenge no matter what. But we also know that a win over a program like Clarke Central would be huge for our program.
“Again, we’re excited about this chance and we’re going to go over there and do everything we can to get a win. We’ll see where we are after it’s over.”