JACKSON COUNTY faces a long road trip to South Georgia Wednesday but the Lady Panthers won’t be minding the extra mileage.
In fact, life on the road may be making the Jackson County girls’ team all the stronger.
The fourth-seeded Lady Panthers (13-6) ventured nearly three hours Friday to knock off no. 1 seed Lakeview Fort Oglethorpe (LFO) 2-1 in their first-ever state playoff game, advancing to the Sweet 16.
“A win like that kind of solidifies a team,” Jackson County coach Joe Ridgway said. “To go this far, we’ve played so much soccer that you’re facing burnout. They’ve been playing with each other a long time. You need big wins like that to keep a team together and rally people. I think that trip and that win, they came out of that a stronger team, socially and emotionally.”
Jackson County now takes on Pierce County (4-7-2) at 4:30 p.m. with a spot in the Elite Eight on the line.
Against Lakeview Fort Oglethorpe, Jackson County trailed 1-0 early, and that’s when the Lady Panthers had a decision to make, Ridgway said.
“We had two choices,” Ridgway said. “We could lay down and be satisfied with making the state playoffs or we could fight through it and try to get a goal. They just picked it up and kept fighting and kept fighting.”
Brianna Manculich scored Jackson County’s first goal off a battle in the box when the LFO keeper came out of the box and Manculich was able to tip the ball in. Though the keeper grabbed the shot, officials ruled that the ball had already crossed the line.
The dramatic goal had a huge effect on the Lady Panthers’ psyche.
“When we got that, it lit a fuse,” Ridgway said.
Within five minutes, Jackson County scored again.
The second goal came off a blast from around 25 yards by Sydney Baird to beat the keeper high in the right corner.
Neither team scored in the second half, setting up some tense moments down the stretch.
“It was a just a battle,” Ridgway said. “I thought we played better possession ball, but they had some chances and we had a lot of chances to run away with it I thought.”
During the last two to three minutes, LFO pushed everyone up and Jackson County bunkered down on defense.
“With short time and you’re defending a 2-1 lead in the state playoffs, it was a nail-biter,” Ridgway said.
The coach said it was an exhausting victory for his team with several players cramping up toward the end.
“We played our hearts out and left nothing on the field,” Ridgway said. “We emptied our tanks. It was a team win.”
Jackson County knows very little about its next opponent, Pierce County, a south Georgia team that plays in Region 2-AA. The third-seeded Lady Bears upset no. 2 seed Thomasville 5-2 to earn a trip to the Sweet 16.
Pierce County is something of a Cinderella story, advancing to the second round despite a 4-7-2 record. Ridgway said the Lady Bears’ sub-.500 mark means little.
“If you win your first-round game (at state), record doesn’t mean anything,” Ridgway said. “You have to be pretty decent to make it to the second round of the state playoffs.”
He added that soccer around the Florida border “is usually pretty good,” with its ties to Jacksonville, Fla., club teams.
Whatever Ridgway’s team encounters in South Georgia, he feels this group is ready for it. He said the team proved a lot to itself by going on the road and winning Friday.
“I think that was the hurdle,” Ridgway said. “I think that was the point where they realized that, ‘wow, we’ve got a shot to go pretty deep here,’ and now it’s just icing on the cake. There’s no fear now.”