WITH JACKSON County’s football success this year, senior offensive lineman Josh Ingram has been getting noticed a little more when he goes out in public.
“I went to McDonald’s right after the game Friday and I had three people come up to me and ask me how we did,” Ingram said. “It’s ridiculous. People are starting to believe in the process. I have people that I don’t even know coming up to me and asking how we did or what we’re doing new. ‘Are we excited? Are we going to win?’ It’s awesome. It really is.”
Under first year coach Benji Harrison, the Panthers (6-4) are the talk of the town after securing their first winning season and state playoff berth in 20 years. They’ll go on the road to face no. 1 seed Cartersville (10-0), which is ranked no. 6 in Class AAA.
What was once a long-standing wish for the Jackson County program is now a reality as the team is playing past game 10 for the first time since the Odell Collins-led Panthers of 1992 (who lost 27-14 in the opening round to Lovett).
“Blink of an eye and it’s happened,” Ingram said. “I’ve got to thank the coaches. They put us here. The players have been here. The change in the coaching staff is exactly what we needed — off the field, on the field. I can’t believe we’re in the playoffs. It’s extremely exciting.”
Cartersville is one of the state’s most established programs with two state titles (1991 and 1999), 15 region championships and nearly 600 wins.
Jackson County could have secured itself an easier path with a win over Morgan County Friday. A 44-28 loss, however, dropped the Panthers to the no. 4 seed and the matchup with Cartersville.
The Purple Hurricanes have won their last six contests by at least 22 points and have topped the 40-point mark the last seven weeks.
“There’s no weaknesses on the team,” Harrison said. “There’s a reason they’re undefeated right now. They’ve got really good speed, good size. They’re well-coached. We’re going to have to go out and execute.”
As for the Panthers, they’ve been playing inspired football all year long and have been racking up points and yardage. Jackson County has a 2,000-yard passer in quarterback Kyle Daniel, an 1,000-yard rusher in tailback Dustin Scott and a 1,000-yard receiver in Xavier Harper.
Harrison believes his team can win this game.
“There’s no doubt, I feel like if we play, our plan is to win the game,” Harrison said. “But we’ve got to play really well. We’ve got to eliminate mistakes and when we have the opportunity to put a score in we’ve got to finish drives. Defensively, we’ve got to continue to do better getting off the field on third down.”
Ingram, too, is confident in his team’s chances to knock off no. 1 seed Cartersville.
“It would have been great to have gotten the no. 3 seed and play an easier team, but you know what? Bring it on,” Ingram said. “I’ll tell Cartersville watch out. We’re coming, baby.”
Like Harrison, Ingram said Jackson County will have to play perfect to be at the Purple Hurricanes. He expects a nail-bitter.
“It’s going to be close,” Ingram said. “It’s going to be a battle on every down, every second. We’re going to have to make plays — every player — the whole time.”
Harrison doesn’t want his team to just be content with making the postseason, and that’s the sentiment that Ingram conveys as well. The Panthers may have made history by reaching state for the first time in two decades, but Ingram expects that he and his teammates will treat this game like a business trip.
“I want to say it’s going to be a rush but the way our mindset will be is it’s just another game,” Ingram said. “We’re going to go do what we do. We’re going to play our hearts out and in the end, we’ll be celebrating.”