JCCHS boys to face defending state champs in first-ever playoff game
GRANTED, Jackson County’s first-round assignment in its first-ever state soccer tournament appearance leaves little room for error. But much like they have all season, the Panthers are embracing the challenge.
The team faces defending champion and second-ranked St. Pius X (13-5) on the road Thursday in what will be the latest chapter in a historic season for the Jackson County boys’ program.
“It’s a big challenge, but it’s also good because our team is going to get recognized,” junior Luis Caraballo said. “We’ve been working hard, and we’re ready for them.”
St. Pius X has won three of the past five Class AAA state titles and seven titles in its history. But the Panthers (9-5-1) have played their share of games against big-time opponents this year.
“We’ve played big teams like Gainesville, Oconee (County) and North Oconee,” said Caraballo, who anchors one of the top defenses the Panther program has ever fielded. “They’re almost the same level, so we’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
And what Jackson County has been doing lately is winning. The Panthers have won five of their last six games, including a 3-2 stunner over no. 5 Oconee County.
“It gave us huge confidence,” Caraballo said of that win. “We believe that we can go all the way. We can keep winning. We’ve come more together as a team.”
First-year Jackson County coach Elie Viviant notes that he was an assistant coach for a Gainesville team that eliminated St. Pius X from the playoffs in 2012.
“We can put them out in 2014,” he said.
Viviant sees how his Panthers might matchup well with the Region 6-AA powerhouse.
“I think, actually, from what I heard, it might be the perfect game for us,” Viviant said. “We are a little bit more cunning. We go fast-forward. We have a good shape. It seems that’s what’s bothered them (St. Pius).”
Win or lose, this has been a banner year for the Jackson County boys’ program — one that won’t soon be forgotten. With nine wins to its credit and a 6-1 record in Region 8-AA play, the team has already exceeded Viviant’s expectations in year one.
“We are a little bit ahead of schedule,” he said. “I didn’t think we would be playing for a region championship this year, but that was nice to be in the race.”
The biggest shift this year may be in the Panthers’ mental approach.
“When you win big games, it changes the attitudes of the players,” Viviant said. “We know when we get on the field, we have a chance to win. So that’s a big change for us.”
Caraballo, who moved to Jackson County this year from the Dominican Republic, said the Panthers unprecedented success has made for a memorable year.
“It’s been really fun — really fun,” Caraballo said. “The guys have been really good. It’s been good. This is my first year here, but I feel like I’ve been here forever.”