JEFFERSON — Ever since he took the Jackson County job three years ago, Billy Kirk has emphasized a need for a strong summer conditioning program. It appears he finally has one.
The Panthers had a 90-percent participation rate this summer in their “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” program, and although the team fields just 60 players, Kirk is confident that the program is finally turning the corner.
“Our kids are finally buying into what we’re trying to do and I think they can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Kirk said.
Leading the charge during the summer conditioning program were the 19 seniors on the Jackson County roster, which is a far cry from the three seniors on last year’s roster.
“That’s the difference this year,” Kirk said. “We have a lot of senior leadership and a lot of kids stepping up and holding the kids accountable.”
With only one win in his first two seasons at the helm of the Panthers, Kirk is hoping that the leadership will translate into more victories. And despite not having the athletes that he’s had in the past, he’s proud to assemble a team that spent countless hours in the weight room and on the field practicing speed and agility drills.
“We don’t have the kids I’m used to having from an athletic standpoint,” Kirk said. “But we have great kids who work their tails off.”
Not only did his players work hard this summer, but they helped lead a school-wide conditioning initiative.
“We opened up our program to male and female athletes and they’ve all bought into what we’re trying to do,” Kirk said. “When you get programs that work together it makes everything easier.”
Kirk had some assistance getting the programs together, as he brought in Jackson County’s baseball coach Tommy Fountain as the head coach of the JV football team.
“All our coaches are on the same page,” Fountain said. “When you’ve got a little more than 900 students, you’ve got to have kids play multiple sports.”
Some of those kids include Fountain’s baseball players, who make up 13 of the 60 players on Jackson County’s football roster. The majority of those 60 players started weight training in the winter, and according to Fountain, it’s made a world of difference.
“Our kids actually look different,” he said.
They’re playing with a bit more confidence, too. During his first year, when the Panthers went 0-10, Kirk made a point to have the younger players get playing time at the varsity level. Now those players are seasoned vets.
“That first year I played a lot of young kids,” Kirk said. “Well, Jon Holton, Rob Williams, Charlie Waycaster and Charles Smothers, those kids have been playing for three years now. You expect for it now to be a lot better than it has been, just based on the fact that those kids have been with us for that long.”
Along with the aforementioned group is quarterback Alex Crawford, who played sparingly as a freshman in Kirk’s first year and is now at the helm of the Panthers’ new spread offense.
“The thing about Alex Crawford is that he came in and learned this system and he probably knows it better than I do,” Kirk said. “He’s just a tremendous student of the game.”
With a little more than four weeks until their first game, perfecting that new offense and preparing the defense to face offenses of its kind will take some work, but Kirk believes that his team is ready for the challenge and he wouldn’t want to coach any other group of kids.
“We trimmed the fat a little bit,” said Kirk, referring to six or seven players he let go because they didn’t buy into the Jackson County philosophy. “We have 60 kids out here and I’m going to take those kids that have put in the work and we’re going to battle with them. I’m looking forward to the ’09 season.”
Jackson County will get a sneak peak at the 2009 season when it scrimmages Athens Christian at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 21 in Athens. The Panthers visit Our Lady of Mercy in Fairburn on Aug. 28 to open the regular season.