Jackson County's Kennedy Harris goes up for a layup in the Panthers' win at East Jackson on Jan. 3. 

Christi Thomas may be a new coach, but her coaching philosophy is very much old-school.

The former University of Georgia star and WNBA player wants to construct a program around stout defense.

“I played for (former UGA coach) Andy Landers, in my generation and era, that’s how we kind of did it,” Thomas said. “We were defense first. I just understand, having played so long, if you can get your defense in order, and it can create offense for you, you’re going to be good on any day.”

Thomas adds this: “I want my kids to hang their hats on the defensive side of the ball.”

Thomas, who played seven WNBA seasons and then all over the world overseas, enters her first head-coaching assignment with a team that’s experienced a carousel of coaches over the past four years. She’ll take over a program that will jump two classifications, from Class AAA to Class AAAAA and seeks its first winning season since 2017. Thomas will also inherit a roster that lacks size.

But the players she has fit the identity she wishes to establish at Jackson County.

“We have an aggressive and very defensive-minded team,” Thomas said.

Thomas said her players have been “very receptive” to what she’s implementing, without push back.

“I’m going to be honest, I’ve been very demanding of them both physically and mentally,” Thomas said.

And on a larger scale, Thomas said she’s impressed with how her team has approached a season scheduled to be played during a pandemic.

“During a time when COVID has messed with really everyone’s mental health, I’ve just been impressed with their strength and their ability to push through,” she said.

Now, Thomas is ready to get started.

“I’m extremely excited,” she said. “A little nervous, obviously, just because I want them to do so well. Not for me, but for them and their confidence and what they’ve seen over the last few years. But I’m super excited to see what my kids and I can do.”

•Lineup: Thomas looks for Mikenna Duffy, the team’s returning assist leader, to step up at point guard. “She’s already a solid player by nature. But I’m looking for her to be more vocal and lead the team from the point guard position,” Thomas said. She also wants Kennedy Harris, the team’s leading returning scorer, to be “not just a shooter,” but a scorer and playmaker. “I am excited to see her growth this year, too,” Thomas said. Meanwhile, the coach will rely on Naomi Sims as the team’s defensive leader as well as a player who can get to the basket. She’ll also look to Katie Hitt, one of Jackson County’s top volleyball players, as one of the team’s leaders, and Makayla Bailey, who could make an impact with her shooting ability.

•Strengths/weaknesses: Jackson County lacks for size, which will be one of the Panthers’ biggest hindrances. But Thomas hopes her team will make up for it on the defensive end, by generating steals and turning those takeaways into transition points.

•Region outlook: Thomas expects playing in Region 8-AAAAA to be a good introduction for the program into Class AAAAA, with Loganville and Greenbrier being among the tougher opponents on the region slate. “But I think, ultimately, that we can compete with in our region despite jumping up two classifications and without the height,” Thomas said.

•Goals: Thomas wants her team to learn how to play with consistency. She noted that the senior class has had four coaches in four years. “I think our culture being implemented and understanding how to compete and to work hard and be a team and be able to love on each other through the good and bad is the most important thing for us this year,” she said.


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