A pair of rivals share some common ground entering the season finale against one another.
The Jackson County and East Jackson football teams both want to end six-game losing streaks. Both want to avoid going winless in the region schedule. And both would like to close with momentum heading into the offseason.
The Panthers (2-7, 0-5 Region 8-AAA) and the Eagles (3-6, 0-5 Region 8-AAA) face off Friday (Nov. 8) at 7:30 p.m. at East Jackson.
“I think it’s very important for both teams,” Jackson County coach Rich McWhorter said. “I think we’re both in a position where we’re trying to build for the future and are really optimistic about days ahead for our program, and I know (East Jackson) coach (Cameron) Pettus feels the same way about his.”
McWhorter added, “This week, I think, could really go a long way in kind of shooting you into your offseason program.”
Pettus views the game similarly.
"We are in very similar situations," he said. "To be able to compete in the last game of the year in a good, competitive game, where both teams could obviously win this game, it's definitely going to be fun and going to be a challenge that we're looking forward to."
Jackson County's defense will have to contend with an Eagle running game sparked by Nino Brown, who has rushed for 1,164 yards this season.
“What an outstanding player,” McWhorter said. “He could be the best football player on the field Friday night.”
McWhorter also said the Eagles are dangerous in their spread offense with their ability to both run and throw. Defensively, the coach said the Eagles play fast and sound with an athletic secondary “that can go out there and line up against just about anybody.”
Meanwhile, Pettus points to Jackson County's defensive line with standouts Andrew King and Brandon Fisher anchoring the Panthers up front. Blocking that pair will be quite an undertaking, Pettus said.
"They are quality," he said. "They might be two of the best defensive linemen we've seen all year. It's going to be a tough task, but our guys are excited for the challenge and opportunity to block two really good football players."
Despite that stout defensive front, Pettus said his team must still try to run the ball with Brown, but must also take advantage of the passing game.
East Jackson comes into this game having played Morgan County, the second-place team in 8-AAA, competitively for four quarters last Friday (Nov. 1) in a 45-31 loss. Pettus is excited for his team to get back on the field in a rivalry game.
"I'm on cloud nine just because it's so exciting," Pettus said. "I know our kids are (excited), too. It's just the perfect time of year, perfect weather. Any time you get to practice and play in November, it's a blessing."
Pettus added that he believes hosting this game is an advantage for his Eagles.
"Because I know our fans are excited and can't wait to come out and support us, so it's going to be a fun evening," Pettus said.
McWhorter's team enters this game coming off a 55-0 loss to Jefferson. The coach said his team played hard despite the lopsided score.
"I thought our effort was there, and I thought they played hard, even to the end, I thought they played hard," he said. "I would have liked for us to have executed better ... but, again, I was excited about the effort, especially this late in the year with the way our season has went."
He's also excited for this week and closing the season against “a team that we share the county with.”
“I think it’s a real positive type of environment,” he said. “I really like (East Jackson) coach (Cameron) Pettus. I think he’s a great guy, and I think he’s a great coach, and I’m really impressed with the job he’s done. We’ve got a lot of respect for the program and what they’re doing, and I know our kids do, too … We just want to go out and play our very, very best one last time this year.”
FRIENDSHIP IN RIVALRY
McWhorter and Pettus are in their first years at their respective schools, but their career travels have been opposite of one another.
McWhorter grew up in Illinois but has spent his entire coaching career in Georgia; Pettus grew up in Georgia but spent nearly all of his coaching career in Illinois.
"We've had a lot of good, candid conversations about that," Pettus said.
Despite coaching at rival schools, the two share a friendship. McWhorter said he got to know Pettus when both had started at their new coaching posts before their families arrived.
"We got a chance to know each other pretty well," McWhorter said. "He coached probably less than 100 miles or so from where I was born and raised. So we had things to talk about Illinois high school football."
The Panther coach sees the two in similar situations with their new jobs.
"I know this has been an exciting challenge for him and I, seeing both of these programs where they are and where we envision them being one day," McWhorter said.
The two help each other out — when possible, of course.
"We actually bounce a lot of ideas off each other, and we say, 'Hey, we'll help each other out — unless it's this week,'" Pettus said.
Pettus said McWhorter is a "fantastic coach and person."
"I obviously love the friendship and the rivalry that we have," Pettus said.