Jackson County didn’t have to wait until January or February to make memories this season. The Panther wrestling team had a day for the scrapbook on Saturday.
Jackson County produced three individual champions and nine placers, finishing with 204 points, to win the 19-team Panther Invitational.
“(It’s) huge. It’s frameable,” Panther coach Jason Powers said of the moment. “This is one of the ones you put up on the wall and go, ‘This is what we can do when we work together as a team.’”
It wasn’t immediately known the last time Jackson County had won its own tournament, which is in its 26th year.
Powers said he was “absolutely elated.”
“As long as I’ve been a competitor and a coach here, we’ve never accomplished this,” said Powers, a longtime fixture around Panther wrestling. “I’m not sure we’ve ever accomplished it before. I can’t say that for sure … But to be able to come into a tournament with a loaded field like this and to be able to come out on top, it’s a huge testament to what our kids have done this year.”
The Panthers won the title against a star-studded group of opponents. Jackson County finished 14 points ahead of rival and perennial state champion Jefferson (190 points), which took second place. Gilmer County, a Class AAAA power, placed third (188.5 points). Other top-flight programs included West Laurens, Elbert County, Commerce and Chattooga.
This was the first time in years that Jackson County had finished ahead of Jefferson in a tournament.
“It means a lot,” Powers said. “This is the first time we’ve been ahead of Jefferson in a tournament in a long time. There’s a lot of great teams in this tournament, Jefferson being one of them. Jefferson has won this tournament many, many, many years. So, I’m not going to say it’s not (big). It’s huge to beat them.
“We’ve got a lot of tasks ahead of us. We’ve got a lot more that we’ve got to continue to battle for. We’ll see them (Jefferson) plenty more times this year, so the job is not finished. This is just one step in the journey. I hope it helps us continue to believe in ourselves. I hope we continue to go back into the (wrestling) room on Monday and go, ‘OK, what do we have to continue to do to get better?’ Because that’s going to be the goal.”
Powers noted the tournament field in the Panther Invitational made up a “who’s who” of teams that will likely finish at or around the top of their respective classifications come state tournament time.
“It’s not like we just won a tournament,” he said. “We won a tournament that actually meant something, so that was amazing.”
Highlighting the tournament for the Panthers were Nathan McArter (138), Kaden Andreasen (160) and Aiden Giroux (182), who all won their respective weight classes.
McArter dominated his bracket, winning all four of his matches via pin. Andreasen produced similar results with three pins and another victory via major decision. Giroux picked up a win via major decision and a technical fall to go with two wins by decision.
Jackson County was bolstered by six other placers — Devonte Stephens (third, 220), Tyler Wester (fourth, 195), Tyler Vaughn (fourth, 285), Ramon Castillo (fifth, 113), Jett Gonzales (fifth, 120) and Cooper Hoffman (sixth, 106).
Powers said his team had a “rough Friday” in the two-day tournament. Jackson County was 19 points off the lead coming into the Saturday rounds, but vaulted into first place by 2.5 points after the morning semifinal rounds.
“We weren’t exactly where we wanted to be, and we came back Saturday and had an absolutely amazing Saturday,” Powers said. “I’m so proud of the kids. I’m so proud of what they’ve battled for and what they earned today. In this sport, you have to earn everything. They earned this moment. I’m extremely happy for them.”
Powers added that his team “didn’t stop fighting.”
“They didn’t get to the medal stand and say, ‘that’s enough,’” he said. “They continued to battle and they continued to overcome obstacles, and they continued to beat really, really tough kids.”
Jackson County will move on to the two-day West Laurens Invitational this Friday and Saturday (Dec.13-14). Powers called this past weekend’s win a huge momentum swing for the program.
“We’ve been riding some momentum for a while, but this is a signature win,” Powers said. “We need this. We need to continue to build on this, and this is what these kids have worked for.”
The coach added that the moment “really hasn’t sank in” with him yet.
“It is an absolutely amazing accomplishment,” Powers said. “It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I know that much. I know it’s just a tournament. I know it’s a step in the right direction, but this is a huge accomplishment. This is something we can definitely be proud of. This is a moment that can be framed.”