Ron Fowler helped usher in a new tradition at Jackson County. Now, he and the Panthers aim to sustain it in his return as head coach.
Fowler and his staff piloted the Panthers to a 32-win, Elite Eight season in 2017, and Jeff White followed that with another quarterfinals appearance in 2018 and a historic Final Four run in 2019. Jackson County won a school-record 38 matches last year.
Fowler is back, following a two-year stint at Colquitt County, to take the reins of one of the more successful programs in the state.
“As always, Jackson County hopes to have a successful year,” Fowler said. ”The team is looking forward to building upon the foundation of success that has become part of the program over the past few years. Our goal every year is to compete for the region championship and to make a run in the playoffs.”
Here’s a look at the Jackson County volleyball team:
•Last year: 38-13
•Returning starters: Katie Hitt (Jr., outside hitter), Gracie Herrin (Jr., middle blocker), Carys Thao (Jr., outside hitter), Cadence Thao (So., libero)
•Other key contributors: Sydney McCutcheon (Fr., setter), Sophie Harris (Fr., defensive specialist), Ruthie Fowler (Fr., right-side hitter, setter), Rebecca Teague (So., right-side hitter), Meadow Slocum (Jr.), Ansley Herrin (So., defensive specialist), Kassidy Gross (Jr., middle blocker), Lauren Burgess (setter, right-side hitter)
•Strengths/weaknesses: Jackson County returns four starters from last year’s Final Four team, including Carys Thao, who registered 343 kills, 242 digs and 67 aces in 2019, and Katie Hitt, who tallied 120 kills. The Panthers also welcome a strong freshman class that includes Sydney McCutcheon, who was recently raked No. 2 nationally for the Class of 2024 by Press Volleyball. The squad, however, has now seniors.
Fowler asked his team to access its own strengths and weaknesses:
“Freshman Sydney McCutcheon spoke up first saying how she really feels as though our team chemistry and how we work together is a strength,” Fowler said. “Gracie Herrin, a junior, said she feels as though they’ve come together as a team ever since tryouts.
“Rebecca Teague, a sophomore, said she feels as though the bond they have already is what makes them a team. Katie Hitt, junior, says that although having a young team with no seniors isn’t necessarily a weakness, it has forced some adjustments and other girls have had to step into that leadership role.
“Kassidy Gross, a junior and (a recent) winner of our champ belt which symbolizes a great attitude, work ethic, and leadership, said that she feels as though being a young and new team with only four returning players, along with their communication and team bonding has set them up for a bright future.”
•Area outlook: Jackson County, in leaping two classifications, moves from one strong area, 8-AAA, to another strong area, 8-AAAAA. “Anytime you move up in classifications it is tough, but I think it is tougher for us to jump from 3A to 5A," Fowler said. "The Panthers will have to contend with a powerhouse in Apalachee that drops down from 8-AAAAAA where it was last year’s area champions. Loganville was the region runner-up in 8-AAAAA last year, while Greenbrier dropped down from Class AAAAAA, where it was a region runner-up in 2019. Rounding out the region are Clarke Central, Eastside, Johnson and Walnut Grove. “These programs have had great success in the sport of volleyball and add depth to an already very tough region,” Fowler said.
•Season outlook: Jackson County, which has advanced to at least the quarterfinals in each of the past three seasons, finds itself in another tough area assignment but is intent on maintaining the status the program has enjoyed since 2017.