As Jackson County wrestling coach Jason Powers puts it, his Panthers have to get off that “fourth train.”
Jackson County placed fourth in both the state duals and traditional tournament last year. That followed fourth-place state dual finishes in 2017 and 2018.
“We’ve been on the fourth train for the last three years … Yeah, I think this team has got potential to do some great things,” Powers said. “We’re shooting for area titles. We’re shooting for some things we haven’t done in quite a while.”
But the coach stressed, “we’ve got to get there first.”
“We’ve got to do a good job in our region (area) making sure we’re doing things right there,” Powers said.
The Panthers do return talent, welcoming back seven state qualifiers, five of which reached the podium. Jackson County has trended toward stronger duals teams in recent years, but Powers envisions a strong traditional squad this winter, too.
Returning wrestlers Kaden Andreasen (third, 160), Tyler Wester (third, 195), 2018 champion Devonte Stephens (fourth, 220), Jacob Crumley (fifth, 145) and Aiden Giroux (sixth, 182) all placed last season. Jett Gonzales and Nathan McArter barely missed the podium at 113 and 132, respectively.
“It might be the most state placers that I’ve ever returned,” Powers said. “So, as far as high-end talent, we’ve got a lot of high-end talent this year.”
Meanwhile, Powers points to Cooper Hoffman, Ramon Castillo and Austin Robertson as younger wrestlers who could make an impact. Garrett Bennett, a senior, should fit into the mix, too.
One notable addition to the roster is freshman female wrestler Raven Cook. Cook, who has competed against boys throughout her career, should bolster the girls’ squad but also help the boys’ team.
“I expect her to make a lot of noise on the girls’ side of things, and I expect her to make noise with the guys, too,” Powers said.
The postseason tournaments should again prove to be demanding. Jefferson still resides in Area 8-AAA with Jackson County, and the Panthers will have to again contend with North Hall, Sonoraville and Lumpkin County — along with Jefferson — in the Class AAA state postseason.
The coach said this group, through demanding practices, has a winning mindset. But he points to senior leadership as a key factor in determining success.
“We’ve shown times of absolute brilliance and some slack a little bit here and there,” Powers said. “But I hope this year is one of those years that the senior leadership makes each other work that much harder in the (wrestling) room.”
Jackson County’s girls’ team begins its second year, and Powers said the program is “blossoming” with 12-15 wrestlers. State placer Bre Lumley returns, joined by experienced wrestlers Montgomery Garland and Tara Moose, along with Cook.
“They work extremely hard,” Powers said of the girls’ wrestlers. “They’re looking to get better every day. They ask tons of questions.”
Jackson County ushers in its season with Saturday’s Panther Scramble. The Panthers — who like many teams will be shorthanded with wrestlers playing football — has won this event each year since its inception. But that’s not the focus. Mat time is, Powers said.
“It’s getting four to five matches in a day and getting our young kids the chance to step on the mat and, no matter what happens, ‘I’m getting four or five matches.’”