When coach Jonathan Gastley arrived at Jackson County, he asked former Panther assistant coach Brian Vance his thoughts on the team’s 13-member senior class for 2017.
Vance offered a succinct response.
“He gave me two words,” Gastley said. ‘He said, ‘They’re winners.’ I think that sums them up.”
Gastley, who came to Jackson County from Mary Persons High School, inherits a rare situation in his first season with the Panthers. His roster is loaded with seniors, but only three to four of those seniors possess significant varsity experience. That’s largely due to playing behind a vast and highly-successful senior class that led the program to a historic Final Four appearance last year.
But Gastley believes this class, which waited in the wings as the program racked up 58 wins over the last three years, will come into its own this spring.
“I think with the way they play together and do things together, I think we’re going to be fine,” said Gastley, who won 136 games in eight seasons at Mary Persons.
Gastley has actually found himself in this scenario before.
In 2012 at Mary Persons, he lost an 11-man senior class that won the region title and reached the Elite Eight the previous year. With 10 seniors with very limited experience, Mary Persons won 20 games and reached the playoffs that season.
Gastley said this year’s Panther team reminds him of that Mary Persons squad.
“I do think that this group will meet our expectations, and then some,” Gastley said. “I really do.”
Zane Corley, Chris Chriggs and Caleb Mathews lead this year’s senior class after playing large roles in last season’s Final Four run. Other seniors, like Mason Williams, Kyle Maxwell and Tyler Barber, have more limited experience. The team will welcome the return of Chandler Saine, who suffered a broken back in 2016 that basically cost him his junior season. Saine is expected to play a role in the middle of the infield. Jackson County will also look to Wyatt Otto and Elijah Butler to contribute.
The Panthers should once again be formidable on the mound with Zane Corley, who was dominant in the Panthers’ playoff run last year, Chris Griggs and Tyler Barber. Caleb Mathews, a lefthander, will figure into the mix, too. Gastley has also been impressed with the preseason work of Conner Meyers and Tanner Crump.
“I feel like we’ve got the depth pitching-wise,” Gastley said. “We’ve just got to do a good job of coming in and throwing strikes and getting ground balls.”
Offensively, Gastley said last year’s lineup “is a lot to replace” but believes his offensive philosophy meshes well with the personnel on hand as the team will look to Griggs, Maxwell, Logan Stockton, Zac Saine and Grey Akins at the plate.
While Jackson County won’t rely on two or three-run homers, it plans to play aggressively and put pressure on opposing defenses.
“Our deal is if we can score one run an inning, we should be able to win a baseball game,” Gastley said.
As far competing in the region, Jackson County must contend with a Franklin County team that joins 8-AAA after winning 28 games a year ago. Hart County was also a state tournament team from last year. Gastley also anticipates that Morgan County will be good and expects tough games from East Jackson and Monroe Area.
Gastley calls 8-AAA one of the top two or three regions in Class AAA.
“For us to be successful, we’ve got to bring our A game everyday, every week,” Gastley said.
The coach has scheduled rigorously in non-region to prepare accordingly and said his team will have to fight through some adversity with this slate of games.
“We’ve got to make sure our kids are battle-tested and have weathered the storm,” Gastley said.
As Gastley takes over a team just nine months removed from a Final Four appearance, he said expectations — 20-win seasons with region-title and state playoff aspirations — are high, and believes they should be.
“I think our goals are very compatible and can compare to other programs in the area,” he said.
Gastley recently asked his seniors what they want their legacy to be. After all, this group has the chance to add to the success of the previous four seasons and perhaps top the success of last year’s vaunted senior class.
“They’re able to write their own story book and how they want to finish it,” he said.
Jackson County’s Zane Corley celebrates last year during the Panthers’ state playoff victory over Blessed Trinity in Game 2 of the Class AAA semifinals. Photo by Ben Munro