THE BEST way to sum up the attitude within Jackson County’s resurgent baseball program? Pleased, but not content.
The Panthers, under coach Tommy Fountain, have developed into one of the more sturdy programs in the area with three winning campaigns in the last four years and a trip to the state tournament last year — the program’s first in 30 years. So the team has no intention of resting on its laurels now.
“We feel like we’re in a good place, but we’re not satisfied,” said Fountain, who enters his seventh year at Jackson County. “Making the playoffs last year was nice, but we don’t want to stop there. “
Last year was, no doubt, a milestone for the program. Jackson County went 16-12 last year, including a 9-5 mark in Region 8-AAA play, and advanced to the first round of the Class AAA tournament where it lost to Ringgold.
But the Panthers endeavor to hang around at state longer this year — and host a playoff series — after breaking the three decade-long playoff drought last year.
“We have talked about as a program how the next step is winning playoff games and ultimately hosting a playoff series and being a one or two seed helps reach that goal,” Fountain said.
In aiming for that goal, the Panthers are armed with seven seniors and four juniors on their 21-man roster. Fountain said the loss of two seniors off last year’s roster — Chase Dunlap and Chandler Malecki — can’t be overlooked but believes “we’ve got the guys needed to step in and fill those roles.”
Joel Ellis broke onto the scene with a huge freshman year in 2013, hitting .339 as the Panthers’ designated hitter, and will continue in that role this spring (he may also see time at first base).
Center fielder Nick Corso is the team’s table setter, batting .300 out of the lead-off spot while swiping 14 bases in 14 attempts and scoring 26 runs.
The Panthers will look to Ben Brissey for power after the right fielder homered three times last year.
The team also welcomes senior transfer Pat Overstreet, a shortstop, who hit over .300 and was an All-Region 8-AAAAA first team selection at Winder-Barrow last year. Overstreet, a short stop, has homered nine times the last two years and “will definitely add some pop to the middle of the lineup,” Fountain said.
On the mound, Jackson County looks to a trio of talented sophomore starters.
Coleman Barbee returns after a stellar freshman season in which he went 4-1 (his only loss came at state), while Jase Latty (2-1, 2.69 ERA) and Jeremy Cook add depth to the rotation. Fountain points out that teams batted under 200 last year against Barbee and Latty. Meanwhile, Cook, who started in last year’s playoff series with Ringgold, has grown 3-4 inches and added seven to eight mph on his fastball. Out of the bullpen, the Panthers will rely on several seniors — Casey Dunfee, Overstreet, Andrew Fogarty and Nick Corso.
“It will be the deepest pitching staff I’ve had,” Fountain said.
The Panthers will put it all to the test against a tough Region 8-AAA. Oconee County (18-8 last year) is loaded with three Division I pitching prospects, while defending champion North Oconee (21-10 last year) has an ace whose fastball clocks in the 90s. Morgan County, 13-15 a year ago, “is almost an exact replica of us,” Fountain said.
“So, we’ve got our hands full,” he said. “Do we have the talent to get it done? I think so. I think we’re definitely good enough that if we play well, we should be in the playoffs again.”
Fountain said this team’s goal is to win the region title and host a state playoff game.
Of course, reaching those marks relies on more than just ability.
“Sometimes the difference between being on the road and being at home is a little luck,” said Fountain, who pointed out that his team just missed grabbing a no. 2 seed last year as a result of three one-run losses.
For now, Fountain remains cautiously optimistic. His team has quality depth with 14 players who have started at some point at Jackson County or at other schools. That can’t help but generate lots of good competition he said.
“Usually that leads to improving your play,” Fountain said. “Hopefully that’s the case. If it is, it could be a fun season.”