If there’s an operative word for the Jackson County girls’ soccer team through seven games, it’s “resilience.”
Jackson County graduated four starters off last year’s Sweet 16 team and has dealt with several injuries but is off to a 5-2 start nonetheless.
“We’re coming together,” third-year coach Joe Ridgway said. “We’ve got to jell a little bit as a team. We got a lot of changes in the lineup. We’re still getting to know each other on the field.”
One of the more recent casualties has been Haley Franklin, who fractured her leg. Franklin, a freshman, had broken into the starting lineup as a midfielder. Ridgway called that “a big loss.”
But Jackson County does have one luxury that’s helped the Lady Panthers offset the injury bug: “We’ve got a lot more depth this year,” Ridgeway said. “We can rotate players in and out, and that helps out.”
Throw in some good team chemistry, and the Panthers have been able to overcome the obstacles the new season has dealt. Jackson County is currently riding a three-game winning streak and is off to a 2-0 start in region play. The Lady Panthers’ only losses came to highly-ranked teams Flowery Branch and Gainesville.
“5-2, I’m pretty happy,” Ridgway said. “We lost to two quality teams.”
The most familiar name on the team is offensive leader Katie Philips, a senior who returned from a serious knee injury to score her 100th goal recently. But several Lady Panthers are playing major roles. Ridgway points to players like Jessica Wells, who is anchoring the midfield, and Alicia Dayton providing impressive play at wing and at numerous other spots. Brianna Manculich is also emerging as a distributing forward. Defensively, Jackson County is getting solid play out of defenders Maddie Newton, Allison Riley, Susan Jean Flaherty and Kourtney Axelberg.
“We’ve had a real strong run defensively,” said Ridgway, whose team didn’t allow a shot on goal Friday in a win at Hart County. “They’re all returners for us.”
Meanwhile, new goalkeepers Mason Garland and Delaney Smith are sharing time at the position and both producing results.
“They had big shoes to fill with (the departure of) Vic Fontana, and they’ve done really well,” Ridgway said.
Ridgway also noted that a number of freshmen are stepping up.
Ridgway said the region schedule will be grind, pointing to teams like East Jackson, Morgan County and Franklin County among others. But the coach said top-10 programs Oconee and North Oconee are the teams to beat for the Region 8-AAA title and the coveted no. 1 seed in the state playoffs.
“We really want to fight for that no. 1 seed this year,” Ridgway said.