Jackson County baseball coach Matt Bolt certainly didn’t want to end the season on a 1-8 slide, but considering the year in its totality with the obstacles presented, he’ll move forward confidently following a 16-12 campaign.
The Panthers closed their season with a 10-2 home loss to Walnut Grove Wednesday (April 21). The Warriors (18-11) broke open a 5-2 game with three runs in the top of the sixth inning and two more in the top of the seventh. Jake Stinchcomb (1-for-3) and Tyler Vaughn, both seniors, drove in each of the Panthers’ runs.
“We did a lot of good things this year,” Bolt said. “We took a pretty big step in the right direction. There’s, obviously, a lot of goals that we didn’t get accomplish … We as a program would much rather be practicing and getting prepared for the playoffs. However, you can’t look past some of the things that we did accomplish.”
The Panthers lost their top two starting pitchers — Kedric Zimmer and Derek Vaughn — at the end of the season as the squad dropped seven of its last eight games and fall out of playoff contention. Jackson County’s other top starting pitcher, Bryson Evans, was sidelined for the bulk of the season. The Panthers also played a brutal region schedule in its first year in Class AAAAA. Region 8-AAAAA featured two top-10 teams (Greenbrier and Loganville) and two others (Eastside and Walnut Grove) that were ranked during some portion of the year. The Panthers went 1-7 in those contests.
Nonetheless, Jackson County’s season highlights included a school-record 11-game winning streak, while Panthers were 11 games above .500 (15-4) at one point this season, also a program-best. The year also featured two victories over Class AAA No. 9-ranked Cherokee Bluff and one win over Class AAA No. 5-ranked Oconee County. Jackson County’s 16-12 record marks its first winning season since 2017.
“It’s a testament to our kids and their hard work,” Bolt said. “Again, it’s not where we want to be, but we’re definitely heading in the right direction.”
The Panthers, who will move into a new ball park next year at Jackson County’s new campus, will return six to seven defensive starters and the bulk of their arms — minus Zimmer and Vaughn — for 2021. Bolt outlined the No. 1 area of growth for the offseason.
“Our primary focus is the weight room,” he said. “We have to be bigger. We have to be stronger. To us, as a coaching staff, and the players even made comments about it that one of the glaring differences is our size compared to the other teams (in the region).”
The team is already off to a good start in that regard, though, as a group of juniors met with Bolt the day following the season finale asking to begin a series of 6 a.m. workouts.
“It’s a testament to our kids that they’re buying in,” Bolt said. “The day after our season ends, the kids aren’t ready to take a break.”