Last season, the Union County Panthers won their first playoff game in a program history that dates back to 1957. They’re hoping for another encore, but must do so despite graduating their quarterback, three top receivers, leading tackler and starting safety.
However, they return 10 starters — five on each side of the ball — and have 12 seniors to lean on.
“I think we can be very solid again,” said coach Brian Allison, whose current stint leading the Panthers began in 2008. He also coached them from 1996-2001. “We’re going to need for guys to fill some big shoes but if they can be productive, we can be very competitive week in and week out.”
The Panthers haven’t had a losing season since 2011. Since 2014, they’re 49-15. Allison contributes the sustained success to steady talent funneling through the program, particularly at the quarterback position. Their last three quarterbacks have gone on to play at the next level. Joe Manusco is the starting quarterback at Richmond, where last season as a redshirt junior he earned Colonial Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Week honors. Cole Wright plays for West Point as a receiver, and Allison’s son, Pierson Allison — who started for the Panthers the last two seasons — has signed with Berry.
“We’ve been very fortunate the last seven years to have good quarterbacks and we have another one who can be very successful in our offense,” Allison said.
Pierson Allison set a high standard last season, completing 179 of his 288 passes for 2,954 yards and 28 touchdowns to seven interceptions and rushing for another 413 yards and six touchdowns on 51 carries. That earned him AJC All-State honorable mention honors.
Expected to replace him is Logan Helcher, who saw limited action last year as a sophomore. Helcher will have the Panthers’ leading rusher from last season, Jonah Daniel (1,570 yards and 16 touchdowns on 177 caries), returning as well.
In addition to Pierson Allison, the Panthers also lost leading receivers Sawyer Drake (78 catches, 1,253 yards, 10 touchdowns), Kyle Morlock (28, 591, 6) and Cayden Rich (23, 435, 4).
On defense, they lost their leading tacklers John Manusco — brother of Joe Manusco — and Sloan Sutton. Noah Underwood (80 tackles) and Clayton Lester (69 tackles) are expected to be the cornerstones for this season’s defensive unit.
The Panthers will be competing in a condensed Region 8, which shrinks from eight teams to five. It drops Putnam County, Monticello, Oglethorpe County and Social Circle while adding Riverside Military. Banks County, Elbert County and six-time defending region champions Rabun County are the holdovers along with the Panthers.
Though the Rabun County Wildcats are still the team to beat in 8-AA, the Panthers — who started 9-0 each of the last two seasons before losing to the Wildcats in the regular season finale — are riding in on the momentum from their 17-15 playoff win over South Atlanta. They also nearly beat Metter in the second round, falling 14-7.
“Last season we added to a small tradition we’ve been fortunate enough to have the last six, seven years,” Allison said. “Hopefully that will continue with this group we’ve got coming back. There’s a level of confidence that we can compete with anyone in the state.”
With 8-AA now a smaller region, the Panthers had more non-region games to schedule and took advantage, with four of six opponents posting winning records and qualifying for the playoff — most notably Commerce, which has advanced in the postseason every year dating back to 2014.
With GHSA activities canceled, the Panthers are being given at-home workout routines, with the seniors meeting online with Allison once a week.
“I text the team through an app once in awhile to let them know I’m still here,” Allison said.
Allison is hopeful the season can start on time. Before it starts, the Panthers have two preseason scrimmages at Towns County and White County.
Allison’s message to the team as it navigates through unprecedented offseason circumstances is simple.
“Don’t get ready, stay ready,” he said. “Do your workouts at home and don’t panic. Everything will be fine and I feel like we’re going to have a football season — so stay ready.”
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