JACKSON COUNTY heads into its season finale coming off a near-miss in what could have been the biggest win in coach Billy Kirk’s tenure.
The Panthers (2-7, 1-5), who play Rabun County this Friday, were edged 22-13 by traditional power Hart County last week on the road. Kirk — whose team lost to Hart County 49-0 last year — couldn’t have been prouder of the effort from his group.
“We had an opportunity to beat Hart County Friday night, but we didn’t,” Kirk said. “But our kids played so hard.”
The night included a career performance from Panther tailback Dustin Scott, who romped for 236 yards on 39 carries and two touchdowns. Jackson County led 7-0 after a quarter Friday and trailed just 15-13 in the final period.
This was the third time this year Scott put up big numbers. The junior ran for 189 yards against East Jackson and 126 against Oglethorpe County.
“Dustin has been fantastic,” Kirk said. “When he’s healthy, we’re a different football team.”
With the loss to Hart County, Jackson County was denied a shot at the no. 4 seed out of 8-AA South for this week’s region play-in.
The top three seeds on each side of the region are fighting for state playoff spots. The remaining teams are playing consolation games.
Since Jackson County is the no. 5 seed out of 8-AA South, it is pairing up with the no. 5 seed out of 8-AA North, Rabun County, for Friday’s game. The Panthers beat the Wildcats 41-14 in last year’s play-in game. Rabun County went 1-9 a year ago, but is 3-6 and appears to be an improved ball club this year.
“I think so,” Kirk said. “They’ve gotten better and we’ve got a challenge in front of us.”
Jackson County will be carrying a heavy heart into this weekend’s game after the death of former assistant coach Joel Conway. Though Conway had moved on to nearby East Jackson this year, he coached several of the players on this year’s Panther roster while at Jackson County from 2007-2010.
“I know our kids will be playing for coach Conway Friday night, and I know East Jackson’s kids will be playing for coach Conway Friday night,” Kirk said.
Though Friday’s game “doesn’t really mean anything” since no state playoff berths are on the line, Kirk said, it’s an opportunity for a win. Twenty starters return next year, and Kirk hopes to build momentum heading into next year and into a new region.
He’d also like to end 2011 on a positive note for the players that will be moving on.
“I want to finish strong for these seniors,” Kirk said.
With his team at 2-7 this year, Kirk isn’t happy with how the win-loss record added up but said this is a team that has represented itself well.
“I’m disappointed in our record but I’m not disappointed in how we’ve played,” Kirk said.