CONSIDER Jackson County having met two major goals at Thursday’s 7-on-7 tournament at Jefferson.
The Panthers continued to develop their stable of new receivers and won big too, reaching the championship game of the 16-team event.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the guys,” said third-year coach Benji Harrison, whose team went 8-1. “I thought they competed, and they’re learning how to win, and that’s huge.”
The team went 6-0 in pool play and then won three tournament games before losing 24-13 in the championship contest against Gainesville. The day included a 28-22 win over Lanier — a Class AAAA team that went 9-3 a year ago — in a back-and-forth semifinals contest.
“That was a huge win there to beat Lanier,” Harrison said. “I think it took a lot out of us. Plus, we were spent like everyone else was out here.”
Harrison said getting to the championship and losing to Gainesville teaches a lesson that can be applied to the actual football season — learning how to finish.
“I talk about it all the time: We’ve got to be great in the fourth quarter,” Harrison said. “I kind of view getting that far today (Thursday) like getting to the fourth quarter. We’ve got to learn how to finish.”
Jackson County has one more 7-on-7 tournament remaining — the July 11-12 national select qualifier at Lassister.
“I think that we’re learning that we are a pretty good football team,” Harrison said. “That’s huge. The mental game is such a huge part of football. Us coming out and having good success today (Thursday) shouldn’t do anything for us except have us go over there with a lot of confidence.”
But the main focus of this summer time work is getting better in the passing game. Harrison said these tournaments have helped receivers like Antonio Strickland, Adrian Parsons and Chase Wester step into much bigger roles this fall.
“I think they’ve come light years in the short time over the summer and spring practice of coming together and understanding how each one runs routes just a little bit different and getting on the same page, so it’s invaluable what we’ve been able to do this summer,” he said.
Strickland made several acrobatic catches Thursday and snagged the game-winning touchdown against Lanier.
“Antonio, I think he made a lot of plays,” Harrison said. “I think Chase (Wester) was playing really well before he got hurt. Adrian stepped in and played really nice.”
Harrison was also pleased with his standout quarterback, Jacob Lewis.
“I think J-Lew (Jacob Lewis) played good,” Harrison said. “He made a lot good throws.”
Lewis, who passed for over 2,500 yards last year, explained how events like 7-on-7 tournaments help establish chemistry between him and his receivers.
“You see when there’s a coverage breakdown or something, you see them, you make eye contact and you just know that you’re on the same page and you’re going to put the ball where they’re going to be,” Lewis said.
Lewis had Xavier Harper, Ben Brissey and Layson Giles to throw to last year but all have graduated. But he has plenty of confidence in the new receiving targets.
“We lost three great receivers last year, but the way I look at it, we picked up three great receivers as move-ins with Antonio, Chase and Caleb (Smith),” Lewis said. “So I think we’re doing just great.”
Of course, the hope is the experience gained in the summer translates into success this fall. Lewis and his teammates are expecting a big season.
"We have our goals set high — higher than last year,” Lewis said. “We want to have a better record. We want to go far in the playoffs. We think we have the guys to make a run deep into the playoffs this year.”
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