New Jackson County football coach Rich McWhorter hoped what he’d seen transpire in nine spring practices would translate to the game field for the Panthers’ scrimmage.
The Panthers topped Class AAAAAA Winder-Barrow 32-21 last Thursday on the road to cap the team’s first spring session under McWhorter. Winder-Barrow led the varsity portion of the scrimmage 21-20 after three quarters before the Panthers subs added two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the second of which came on a Hail Mary on the game’s final play.
McWhorter, who came to Jackson County after 288 wins and four state titles at Charlton County, said he wanted to see signs that his team improved throughout the spring.
“Irregardless of whether it was a win or whatever, I think we accomplished that,” McWhorter said. “I think we accomplished the fact that we are headed in the right direction. We have made a lot of progress.”
Jackson County played four quarterbacks — Jake Stinchcomb, Jesse Whiting, Connor Bejin and Isaiah Maxey — in the win. Each of the four led a touchdown drive.
“I’m excited about all four of them,” he said. “I really am. Like I’ve told people, nobody asks me who’s playing right offensive guard, but everybody wants to know about the quarterbacks. But we’ve got four kids who have a lot of ability.”
McWhorter said Stinchcomb and Whiting, rising juniors, have so far earned equal time taking snaps on Friday nights in the fall.
“Jesse Whiting and Jake Stinchcomb have really done a great job, and they really have shown me that both of them need to be on the field,” McWhorter said.
McWhorter won a state title with Charlton County in 1999 using a two-quarterback system. He said dual starters at the position “works just fine.”
“The good thing about it is, if you ever have a Friday night where one of them is not on, you’ve got a chance where the other one will be on,” McWhorter said. “Hopefully it will be like (Thursday) where they both were highly productive.”
In the scrimmage, Jackson County trailed 21-14 at the half with touchdown passes from Stinchcomb and Whiting.
Stinchcomb threw a 19-yard pass to Jonathan Steeb in the first quarter for the game’s first score. Jackson County later trailed 14-7 in the second quarter when Whiting connected with Bo Reeves for a 21-yard touchdown pass to tie the game 14-14.
But Winder-Barrow’s Jhaydon Sullivan hit Brett Landis for a 50-yard touchdown with just over five minutes left in the half to put the Bulldoggs up by a touchdown. It was the last of three touchdown passes for Sullivan, who also connected on a 70-yard touchdown pass to Landis in the first quarter and a 10-yard pass to Chandler Maxwell in the second quarter.
Tyler Wester pulled the Panthers within a point, 21-20, in the third quarter with a nine-yard touchdown run, but failed to reach the end zone on a two-point try. Jackson County attempted a deep pass on the final play of the third quarter, which ended in an interception.
With the subs taking over for the fourth quarter, Maxey ended a long scoring drive — which included a 27-yard pass to Bailey Hamm on fourth-and-20 — with a one-yard touchdown run with a minute remaining. The Panthers’ two-point try failed.
Jackson County’s final possession produced some fireworks with a 40-yard touchdown pass from Bejin to Alonta Tuck on the game’s last play.
“We were just going to do what we do, and we took a shot,” McWhorter said. “We treated it as if it were the end of a half or end of a game, what would we do? We don’t have our victory formation in yet. We went ahead and played one more play.”
McWhorter said the scrimmage was a boost for the players and the community.
“They were feeling great about it, and I think the people in the community were feeling great about it, and that’s the way it should be,” he said. “I mean, you’ve just experienced some success. Feel good about it, and I’m glad they did.”
He also put the moment in perspective.
“With that being said, I really believe we’ve got a long way to go,” McWhorter said. “We’re nowhere near where we hope to be on Aug. 23 against Banks County.”
In closing the spring session, McWhorter said he feels the team has three “outstanding” running backs, a solid young offensive line and a defensive front he’s excited about, praising the defensive line’s play against the run in the scrimmage in particular.
He pointed to the necessity of a strong summer, which will include small 7-on-7 competitions with teams such as Cherokee Bluff and Athens Academy and padded camp work against George Walton Academy and Cherokee Bluff.
But McWhorter likes what he’s seen out of his team so far.
“Each and every Friday we want to feel like ‘hey, we’ve got a chance – we can compete,’” McWhorter said. “If we play well, we have a chance, and I think we’re headed in the right direction to where our kids need to expect to have a chance each and every week.”