Panthers look to capitalize on 2018 success

Tiftarea head coach Erik Soliday holds up a play chart for the Panthers to examine before a recent practice.

TIFTON — The 2019 football season will be starting soon and, with it, a chance to pick up from where they left off a year ago.

Tiftarea dominated its way to the Georgia Independent School Association Region 3-AAA title, its first since moving up to AAA. It was a season for the ages for the team.

Led by one of the most athletically successful senior classes in school history, the Panthers completed their first ever 10-0 regular season and advanced all the way to the GISA Class AAA state semifinals.

The senior group included four All-State players and two — Spence Massey and Brandon Mullis — who will be playing football in college. They will be missed, but second year head coach Erik Soliday said Tiftarea can’t dwell on their departures.

“We don’t focus on what we don’t have,” said Soliday. “We focus on what we do.”

Seven returnees have starting experience. That begins with quarterback Logan Crosson, a senior who has been the starter at the position the last two years. “He’s gotten even better in the offseason,” Soliday said. Dylan Harbort will serve as Crosson’s backup. Harbort is only a sophomore.

Crosson threw for 1,840 yards and 28 touchdowns as a junior, impressive considering the Panthers also had 1,360 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground from Massey. Crosson threw for four touchdowns in two games last season (Lanier County and Heritage), but had his best yardage (302) and completion percentage (75 percent) against Deerfield-Windsor, a 42-7 romp that was a game for the ages.

Before Oct. 26, 2018, the Panthers went 20 years and 17 games between victories over Deerfield-Windsor. The contest was not just a career night for Crosson, but also for running back Adam McKinney.

Massey missed the Deerfield-Windsor game with injury, but in his stead, McKinney ran for 77 yards and three touchdowns. McKinney is aiming to be Tiftarea’s main running back this year. Soliday is hopeful.

“I think he’s going to do a really great job,” he said.

Will Ross can also run. Cason Peavy and Mark Coley also had carries in 2018.

When McKinney isn’t running with the football, he’ll likely be catching it. He’s the leading returning receiver on the roster, having caught two touchdowns and 129 yards as a junior. Soliday also thinks he’ll have a big season from Jayk Sailer, an all-around athlete that brings speed to the table as well. Peavy and Ross are penciled in as receivers, too.

Tiftarea’s line was already deeper than expected going into the new season, but they received a boost with the return of Trenton Fender to the lineup after he transferred back to the school. Other linemen include Banks Johnson, Ty Haskins, Jackson Hoover, Wesley Malone and Ben Matt.

Being at a smaller school, defense, according to Soliday, is “pretty much the same guys.”

Everyone at Tiftarea can play both sides of the ball. The offensive line will become the defensive line.

Jaden Jones and Ross are among the linebackers. Secondary men include McKinney, Sailer and Coley.

Soliday said Colson Stewart will kick for the team.

In addition to the active Panthers, the team also has much to look forward to in the future. The Jr. Pro Panthers, composed of fifth and sixth graders, went undefeated in 2018. They won their league championship by a 14-0 score over Southland Academy.

Tiftarea will begin its season Aug. 23 at Creekside Christian in McDonough. Following that will be their home opener against Terrell Academy Aug. 30.

The Panthers will play a very similar schedule to that of 2018, with two exceptions. Lanier County opted not to play Tiftarea this season, even though the locals were to have played in Lakeland. Notre Dame Academy is also not returning. The Irish Wolfhounds forfeited what would have been Tiftarea’s homecoming game because the program, playing its first year of varsity football, did not have enough healthy players.

Tiftarea has replaced those two contests with familiar opponents: Westfield and Frederica Academy. Both games will be on the road. Tiftarea last saw both teams two years ago, Westfield in the regular season and Frederica in the state playoffs.

The Panthers play their first region crossover game Sept. 27 against Loganville Christian Academy. Their only other crossover will be against Heritage of Newnan. Region starts Oct. 4 at Valwood. Tiftarea won its first over the Valiants in 10 years last season.

Deerfield-Windsor, Brookwood and Southland Academy remain as well in 3-AAA. Senior Night, Nov. 1, will be against Deerfield.

Should the Panthers win three games this season, they will reach 250 victories as a program. Football started at Tiftarea in 1975.

Tiftarea Academy is the first of a series of five football previews which will run in The Gazette in August. Other schools to be previewed are Tift County, Irwin County, Fitzgerald and Turner County.

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