Last season, the Panthers five-year streak of having a winning record came to an end while they only played six games, going 2-4.
They faced the problems that teams across the country were challenged with; a growing pandemic and COVID restrictions.
The Panthers would miss out on summer training and have an abbreviated 2020 season.
“It was different to say the least,” Head Coach Kirk Warner said. “Considering the circumstances, they were in, the guys gave it all they got. We had no summer conditioning because everything was shut down. They played their hearts out and won two games off the bat. Bradwell and Liberty were in the same boat so we were kind of even keeled but once we started playing teams that never got shut down, we just could not pull those games out. That was the season in a nutshell.”
Despite the game shortage, the Panthers would still reach the GHSA 3A playoffs before dropping to Central-Macon in the first round 14-6.
“I take my hat off to my guys because we still went to the playoffs and lost to a team that had been working out the whole time,” Warner said. “So, our guys played hard and had a chance to win a first round playoff game. I do not like getting moral victories but considering the circumstances, our season was ok.”
Heading in the 2021 season, none of the problems they faced during last year’s preparation will be a factor, being allowed to have spring and summer to gear up for kickoff as Warner heads into a milestone year 20 as the Panther’s signal caller.
The focus this offseason was getting the team in playing shape and improving them and working with them on the psychological side of the game.
“We had a full summer workout, starting on June 5,” Warner explained. “Our guys are in much better shape this time this year than they were last year. They have gotten stronger and have more endurance. When you got endurance, you tend to be more mentally sharp. When you are tired, your mental sharpness goes down. We are not in the shape we want to be in, but we are gaining strides.”
Prominent offensive players that Warner is looking to for leadership is: Keontrae Williams, Senior Right Tackle, Marques Johnson, Senior Running Back, and Ron Golden, Sophomore Wide Receiver.
“Trae Williams has been a three-year starter on the offensive line at right tackle,” Warner said. “Marques Johnson has been a staple and a two-way starter at for us at running back and cornerback. Ron Golden stepped up at receiver. He will be a sophomore and has shown some flashes.”
Key players defending the endzone for the Panthers are: Demarai Booker, Junior Defensive End, Deavyn Anthony, Senior Nose Guard, and Mason Diaz, Junior Middle Linebacker.
“Demarai Booker is a one-year starter coming back at defensive end,” Warner said about his defender. “Deavyn Anthony has been in our program for four years. This will be his first time starting full-time. Mason Diaz moved in last year. We did not get to see much of him because of the COVID situation but from what he has shown us in the weight room and spring practice, he is going to make a difference at Mike linebacker, and we are going to let him run the ball a little bit. They are our leaders in the weight room, so we expect them to be our leaders on the field.”
The set that the Panthers run with possession of the ball is the spread offense.
“80-90 percent of our game is out of the shotgun,” Warner explained. “We run a little zone read but not quite as much as we want because of our young quarterback situation. We run more of a power run game out of the shotgun spread formation.”
On defense, they play a 4-3 or a 4-4 with the secondary running a zone coverage.
“Defensively we are going to run an even, four-man front,” Warner said. “Depending on what people give us, we will do a 4-3 or a 4-4 base set with a Cover 3.”
Off the field, Warner wants his players to grow closer to each other, taking steps to accomplish that by placing them in the same classes.
“We were able to get the majority of our players in one weightlifting class,” he said. “Grinding in the weight room during the school day builds that team chemistry and camaraderie. They relay that into the games on Friday nights.”
The first order of business on the field for Warner is for the Panthers to take back the Region 3-AAA Championship, a title that they have not had since 2017 when they played in Region 2-AAA.
“The first step is to try to regain the region championship,” Warner said. “We lost it to Southeast Bulloch last year. Winning the region would be a step towards a successful season. We also want to get back to the playoffs. We have been eight years in a row, and we expect to win some playoff games.”
The Panther’s first game will take place in Milledgeville when they take on 4A Baldwin on August 20.
See photos here: Pre-Season photos