Football success at Perry hasn’t been a staple of the fall, particularly when the Panthers have faced other teams in Houston County or the area.
That’s why last week’s 23-17 victory at Houston County was celebrated deep into the weekend in the county’s southern neighborhoods.
“Huge win for the program,” Perry coach Kevin Smith said earlier this week.
The victory, the first for the Class 4A Panthers over a 6A team since 2012, was another mile marker passed on Perry’s road toward football stability in Smith’s second season. Ironically, 2012 was the last time the Panthers had a winning season, a 6-5 mark that included the defeat of 6A Alcovy and ended with a playoff loss to Burke County.
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That year capped a run of three straight winners — 6-5, 7-4 and 6-5. Unfortunately those marks were followed by only nine wins over the next four seasons before Smith, a long-time assistant at Northside and Veterans, took over to get the Panthers to 5-5 in 2017.
Perry’s win over Houston County was the third over a team in a higher classification the past two seasons. The Panthers topped 5A members Harris County and Veterans early last year, a pair of triumphs Smith said helped key his debut season.
The most important win from 2017, however, was the finale at playoff-bound West Laurens. Perry entered on a four-game losing streak and with no hope for a playoff spot, yet it emerged with a 20-14 win to end the run of losing seasons.
“I challenged the guys to go out with a bang,” Smith recalled. “We controlled that game, and it gave us some great momentum for the offseason.”
With a renewed sense of purpose, the Panthers worked harder in the months leading to this season, and it paid off in Friday’s game. Perry gave up a quick touchdown, but senior receiver Davion Ross returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown and later scored on a 27-yard reverse to help the Panthers to a 21-14 halftime lead.
“We’re raising the bar from last year,” said Ross, a 6-foot, 165-pounder. “Everyone has done the work to be better.”
Perry’s defense, which struggled in the first half, came to the fore in the second to hold the Bears to only a field goal despite playing on its own side of the field the majority of the half. The Panthers forced three turnovers on the night, stopped a fake field goal attempt and recorded a safety after downing a punt inside the Bears 1-yard line.
“The first half, the offense had our backs, and the second half we had to try to pay them back,” linebacker Jaylen Johnson said. “Everybody knew what they were capable of doing and did it.”
Smith was proud of his team’s physical and mental toughness, another testament to the offseason work.
“We pushed our toughness up a notch,” the coach said. “(Houston) had three or four good scoring chances in the second half, but we held them out.”
While the outcome raised eyebrows in the county and around Middle Georgia, it wasn’t a surprise to the Panthers. Smith said Perry’s showing in a scrimmage against neighboring Peach County, last season’s AAA runner-up following a controversial ending, opened his players’ eyes, particularly after they allowed two quick touchdowns to the Trojans.
“We competed with them,” Smith said. “The kids were like, ‘We didn’t get killed. We’ve been working harder and it showed.’ ”
Johnson said there was no lack of confidence preparing for the Bears.
“We weren’t surprised (to win),” the 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior said. “The coaches had us ready.”
Perry faces another program marker of sorts at 7:30 p.m. Friday when it travels to Thompson Stadium to face Northeast. The game is a reversal in terms of class for the Panthers.
Northeast, which lost its opener to Class A Trinity Christian in the head coaching debut of former Raiders star Jeremy Wiggins, is a AA member.
“Can we handle success has been one of my points this week,” Smith said. “We can execute like we know how or flop. Do we stay the same, drop back or go up another step? Friday will be telling.”
Ross is confident of the answer.
“No matter how many A’s a team has, we’re going to play them as hard as we can play them,” Ross said. “We have to if we’re gonna win.”