Liberty County will look to get back to the state Class AAA quarterfinals for the second straight year when the Panthers take on Westside Macon on Friday at Donell Woods Stadium.
And then the Panthers hope to go on from there.
“This is not our first time in the playoffs” Liberty County coach Kirk Warner said, according to an email from the school.
“This time we hope to walk away with the state trophy,” Warner is quoted as saying.
But first, the Panthers (8-3) will have to beat the Seminoles, who are 8-3 overall and went 5-1 in Region 4-AAA, where they finished second behind historically loaded Peach County (10-1).
The Seminoles are led by sophomore quarterback Victor Dixon Jr., who has passed for 1,312 yards and 16 touchdowns but also was intercepted nine times. If the stats on MaxPreps are any indication, then he isn’t a running threat.
That honor would go to Westside’s top rusher, senior Lakelvin Clark, who has 997 yards and four touchdowns on 138 carries.
Senior outside linebacker Deangelo Haynes is the team’s top tackler, with 113 tackles and 12 sacks. Senior linebacker Anthony Jordan has 82 tackles and added seven sacks for the Seminoles, who beat Windsor Forest 14-0 to advance to the second round.
The Seminoles, like Liberty, also had some issues early. Westside Macon started the season 1-3 before winning six straight to finish the regular season second in 4-AAA.
Liberty opened the season struggling to get above .500 after falling to rival Bradwell Institute 23-7 in the opener for both schools.
Liberty then beat Statesboro 36-34, fell to Jenkins 43-41, beat New Hampstead 14-13, and lost to Effingham County to finish out September.
The Panthers haven’t lost since, or even come close to losing. Liberty has reeled off wins over Tattnall County (35-13), Appling County (35-14), Long County (62-6), Brantley County (46-0) and Pierce County (41-14).
Do the math, and it’s clear this team — after losing quarterback Jaalon Frazier and playmaker Richard LeCounte III — is doing quite nicely now with their replacements, including sophomore quarterback Dionte Bowens and junior running back Kris Coleman on offense, and a fast and furious defense that boasts a number of players capable of turning a game around on a dime.
Now for some perspective.
I was sports editor at the Courier the last year a Liberty County High School football team played that wasn’t coached by Warner. That was in 2001, and the Panthers went 0-10 under Mike Casteel. He left, and Warner took over the next season.
His Panthers went 3-7 that first season, back when they played in the old 2-AAA that included some of the state’s toughest AAA programs, especially 2002 state champ Screven County, 2000 state champ Swainsboro and historically strong programs such as powerhouse Appling County and Savannah Christian, which played “up” all those years ago.
Warner has gone 80-80 since that first season, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association, which does a great job keeping track on high school football in the Peach State.
That 80-80 may sound like mediocrity, but it’s actually no small feat when you consider that Warner was 9-31 over his first four seasons in Flemington.
I can attest that those were some hard times for Liberty football. I remember one game in Sylvania where then-Screven County star Michael Cooper ran for 319 yards and four touchdowns against the Panthers.
In the first half.
But good things sometimes come to those who wait and the Panthers haven’t suffered a losing season since 2014.
Last year, Liberty (11-2) got to the quarterfinals before losing to eventual state runner-up Greater Atlanta Christian 44-33 in triple overtime.
This season, well, Liberty is back where they were expected to be when the preseason polls came out and had the Panthers ranked as high as No. 5, so it’s clear somebody knew something. It’s also clear it’s up to the Panthers how far they go from here.
Given the talent at LCHS, state titles should be the goal.
But make no mistake.
Star players come, and star players get recruited, sign and go on to bright futures —players like Raekwan McMillan. Richard LeCounte III, and, soon, Tramel Walthour. There’ve been others, too.
But the one constant over the past 17 years at this program has been Warner, the former Bleckley County, UGA and professional player. The even-keeled coach has seen it all over nearly two decades, and made it through some tough seasons with grace.
What’s the old saying: Tough times don’t last, but tough people do?
Warner’s made it through the tough times, and turned Liberty into a top 10 program. So if he’s saying his team is ready to “walk away with the state trophy,” then it might be time to make room in the trophy case.
And even if it doesn’t happen this year, you get the feeling it could be only a matter of time before it does.
When it does, give Warner the lion’s share of the credit for making it happen. I can’t think of anyone who will deserve it more.
Whitten is managing editor of the Courier. He was sports editor from 2000-2005.