The 2016 season was the best in school history for the Liberty County High School Panthers. After making the Elite Eight for the first time ever, the team is focused on bigger and better things in 2017.
The Panthers finished the season 11-2 and won the Region 2-AAA championship, another first, and were just a play away from a Final Four bid before they fell to eventual AAA state runner-up Greater Atlanta Christian in a triple overtime heartbreaker.
Now, Liberty County looks to take it a step further, and Kirk Warner, who is entering his 16th season as head coach, is certainly confident in his team.
"Our focus is the same. We lost some great players, but our focus is still to try to get to that 15-game plateau" Warner said, explaining that their ultimate goal is to win a state championship. "We fully expect to make the playoffs and do well in the playoffs. Our goals haven’t changed. Our personnel has changed a little bit, but our goals have stayed the same."
Speaking of those personnel changes, the Panthers certainly saw a lot. They lost their biggest asset in Richard LeCounte, who is looking to secure a starting spot with the Georgia Bulldogs.
LeCounte recorded over 1,600 all-purpose yards, 954 of which were on offense, and 22 total touchdowns. The All-American also recorded 100 tackles, 11 for loss, and two interceptions last year.
The Panthers are not just losing LeCounte, however, as they must replace quarterback Jaalon Frazier, who is now at Georgia Southern, as well as receivers Elisha Polite, who led the team in receiving yards, and Dylan Stewart.
Warner feels losing that many athletes offensively will change their play calling.
"It’s going to affect us a little bit when we play call," he said. "I won’t say it will make us a little more conservative on offense, but until we get some guys that can prove themselves as far as making plays like those guys did, we are going to be a run-oriented team and pass when we can get it and rely on our defense."
Franklin LeCounte, a senior offensive linemen, is Richard’s cousin and he knows that losing him is a big deal, but he knows that they must step up.
"He played a big role, but as leaders, we gotta step up and fill those shoes," he explained. "We have been preparing all summer long conditioning, lifting, and bonding together as a team, so we know that we will fill that hole he leaves."
Defensively, the Panthers lose Antonio Golden, who led the team in tackles with 102, as he signed with Fort Valley State to play football. Despite this, the Panthers return six starters on that side of the ball, including linemen Tramel Walthour and Trayveon Freeman, who was Liberty’s Defensive MVP in 2016, and they are confident that will help the team out tremendously.
"I think our defense is going to be just as strong or stronger than last year," Warner said. "Almost our entire front seven is coming back. Those guys have gotten bigger and stronger, so I think they’re going to be the backbone of our team, especially early on."
Warner also praised senior offensive and defensive linemen Sisquo Westbrook, who he said they "were not able to block in the spring." Westbrook talked about losing their key players and he knows that those players are irreplaceable.
"We cannot replace them boys," he said. "But we have a lot of players and if we step and play our position right, we can still be a dominant force in the region."
Other than Brantley County, the Panthers are the only team in Region 2-AAA that did not see a change at head coach. The Panthers will use that to their advantage as they hope to roll through their region schedule, like in 2016 where they outscored all five region opponents by an average of 23 points.
The Panthers open the 2017 season on Friday, when they host cross-town rival Bradwell Institute. The game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. at Donell Woods Stadium.