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Region 8-AAA: Jackson County joins a talented bunch
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At a glance
Region 8-AAA
Subregion A
Elbert County
Morgan County
North Oconee
Oconee County
Subregion B
Jackson County
East Jackson
Hart County
Franklin County

Top teams by sport
(based on recent performance)
Softball: Oconee County
Volleyball: Oconee County
Cross Country: Jackson County girls, North Oconee boys
Football: Elbert County, North Oconee
Basketball: Morgan County girls, Franklin County boys
Wrestling: Jackson County
Baseball: Hart County
Track and field: Elbert County boys, North Oconee girls
Soccer: North Oconee boys, Oconee County girls
Golf: North Oconee boys, Franklin County girls
Tennis: Morgan County boys, North Oconee girls

Football playoffs
Region 8-AAA plays a straight seven-game region schedule. Playoff teams are determined by final region standings (first-fourth).

Jackson County High is coming off a relatively successful season for sports. Second-year athletics director Jason Holcombe hopes that trend will continue with the school’s move to Region 8-AAA.

“Overall, it’s going to be a challenging region in every sport from top to bottom,” Holcombe said.

Even though the Panthers have been without a playoff appearance in football, baseball and basketball the past three years, that doesn’t mean they have struggled across the board. The girls cross country was ranked in the top five in Class AA last season and the girls soccer program made the state quarterfinals. Jackson County’s wrestling program has finished in the Top 10 at the traditional state meet five of the past six seasons.

In 2011-12, Jackson County finished only one game back from earning a playoff spot in softball, girls basketball and baseball, according to Holcombe.

Holcombe said one of the main draws to the new region is that it will be one of the most competitive regions in the state, including schools such as East Jackson, Elbert County, Hart County, Franklin County, Oconee County, North Oconee and Morgan County. On top of that, Jackson County is right at the center geographically in the region that stretches as far south as Madison, east to Elberton and as far north as Carnesville.

“It’s going to be exciting to be so close to home,” Holcombe added. “We have a strong community and our fans travel very well on the road.”

It also marks a new era for the Panthers football program with first-year head coach Benji Harrison, who spent the past four years at Flowery Branch High as offensive coordinator. Harrison is familiar with the schools in this region, having coached at Elbert County (2000-2002) and Franklin County (2002-2007) as an assistant earlier in his career.

“I’m excited about coaching in this region,” Harrison said. “There’s a lot of familiarity between the schools in this region.”

The eight schools coming together in Region 8-AAA have been consistently strong in football, even though no single school has been dominant. Six of the eight schools have made at least one playoff appearance since 2009.

However, only one (Elbert County, 2011) made it to the state quarterfinals.

Jackson County has averaged three wins per season in that same span. This year, Harrison is excited about Jackson County opening with two traditional rivals: Class AAAAA’s Winder-Barrow on Aug. 31, followed by Jefferson High on Sept. 7 at Jefferson Memorial.

After three non-region games to open the season, the Panthers will play seven straight within the region to round out the regular season. The last time Jackson County posted a winning football record and also made the playoffs was in 1992.

“If we make the playoffs, we’ll already be battle tested with seven region games,” Holcombe said.

Holcombe says the strongest school across the board in recent seasons for Region 8-AAA has been North Oconee. The Titans have posted three straight playoff appearances in baseball and football.

Meanwhile, Oconee County finished the 2011-12 school year ranked seventh in the state in the Director’s Cup, based on athletic achievement. Last year, the Warriors won state in softball, and finished fourth in girls soccer and wrestling.

Regional events