JEFFERSON — The world of sports can be unpredictable at times. However, in almost every sport at every level, some things remain the same.
Powerhouses remain often dominant year after year, while teams at the bottom of the standings tend to stay there.
The Jackson County boys basketball team is planning to change that. For the Panthers, the “rebuilding years” are over.
“It really just started with laying a foundation our freshman year,” said senior guard Alex Crawford after a team practice last week.
For Crawford and the rest of the Jackson County seniors, the last three years haven’t been easy. In fact, to an outsider, they may have seemed miserable.
The Panthers went 15-51 in that three-year span, with the majority of those losses by double figures. While the competition has changed throughout the years — the Panthers enter a new classification this season (Region 8-AA) after dropping down from AAAA and then again from AAA in that span — the team has stayed pretty much the same.
Credit for that goes to coach Britt Beaver, who is currently coaching his fourth season at Jackson County — a feat in its own right for a school that has struggled to retain coaches in any sport.
Crawford and fellow senior Jarvis Shaw have stuck with the program through the rough times and have seen substantial varsity playing time since their freshmen seasons.
“I really give that as a credit to coach Beaver, because he didn’t have to,” Crawford said. “We’ve played together these last few years as a team and I feel that now it’s finally paying off.”
Jarvis, who is averaging 11 points and six rebounds per game to this point, agrees.
“Having a lot of the same guys with us these past few years has definitely helped,” Jarvis said. “Everything we’ve been working toward really since middle school is finally coming together now.”
The start of the 2010-11 season began like the others, with losses. Crawford and Shaw saw their team drop to 0-4 to begin the year, with the losses averaging nearly a 30-point per game deficit.
Then, things began to change.
The Panthers have since won nine of their last 10 games, including a 52-51 win over Oglethorpe County on Tuesday to improve to 2-1 in Region 8B-AA. At 9-5, they find themselves over the .500 mark this deep into a season for the first time in over a decade.
In what appears to be a wide open 8B-AA subregion, the Panthers are hoping to make their first playoff appearance since 2000.
In addition to Crawford, Shaw and the rest of the Jackson County senior class — Nick Oney, Logan Smith, Miguel Guereca and Ben Weaver — the addition of junior Kolin Zimmer has helped the Panthers claim their new-found success.
Zimmer, a native of Ohio, moved with his family from the Dayton area and when the decision came to choose a school, he decided on Jackson County.
“My mom was looking for a good school district and this was one of the best in the area, so it came between (Jackson County) and Jefferson,” Zimmer said.
Having only played junior varsity for his previous school, Tippecanoe High School in Tipp City, Ohio, Zimmer saw a greater opportunity to play for the Panthers rather than the already established Jefferson squad.
“There seemed to be a lot of cliques at Jefferson and I just felt like (Jackson County) was a better fit for me,” he said. “I like to shoot the ball and my style of play didn’t really fit in the scheme of the varsity coach at Tippecanoe.”
“I’m thankful to coach Beaver for giving me an opportunity to play,” he added.
Zimmer has done more than just play, as he has quickly become one of the Panthers’ major scoring threats and best outside shooters. He currently leads the team with 16 points per game.
With the help of Zimmer, the Panthers have been able to knock down big shots to swing momentum their way in their half-court offense.
Arguably the biggest win for the Panthers to this point was the 56-54 home victory over rival Jefferson on Dec. 17. Sound fundamental basketball led way to the win over the Dragons, who went undefeated in Region 8-AA last year and made a trip to Macon for the Class AA Final Four.
“If you can drop down to a region and beat the team that won that region last year, it’s a huge boost to your confidence level,” Shaw said.
For Crawford, who lives in the Jefferson district but had the rare opportunity to choose which school he wanted to attend since his older siblings went to Jackson County, the win meant a little bit more.
“It was like a weight being lifted off our shoulders and I think it shows what this team is capable of,” Crawford said. “Seeing all of our fans here and celebrating with them after the game was just a great feeling.”