JACKSON — 30-27.
That score cost them the FAC championship to Chillicothe and has been displayed throughout Jackson’s weight room as a reminder of what its motivation is this season.
“For what our standard has become over time, we came up short last season, and we can’t have that happen again,” Jackson coach Andy Hall said. “Losing that game to Chillicothe for a conference title and losing to Tri-Valley in the playoff game, it was incredibly humbling. It forced us to reassess what we do and how we do things to get us back to the level we were not too long ago.”
The one positive for Jackson this year is that only seven seniors were lost in the COVID season, meaning a ton of experience returns to gridiron for the Ironmen.
That experience begins under center where they have a quarterback battle ensuing between Jacob Winters and Evan Spires.
Winters started last season before an injury shut him down offensively halfway through the year and Spires took over the rest of the way.
“We’re lucky to have two great options at quarterback, and both guys would start anywhere else in Southeast Ohio,” Hall said. “They both bring different things to the table. Jacob has a huge arm, very physical, runs powerful and has all the physical tools you could want. Evan gives you the intangibles and just makes plays no matter what. Its unorthodox and unique, but he gets the job done.”
Whichever player isn’t under center will be right beside him as the running back, alongside Hunter Webb and sophomore Cade Wolford, who led the team in rushing with 374 yards including nine total touchdowns.
On the outside, it all starts with standout receiver Tristan Prater, who hauled in over 30 catches with eight of them going for touchdowns. He’s joined by Drew Bragg, Holden Blankenship, Jacob Wood, Evan Jarvis and Mitchell Mapes.
“There’s a lot of speed on the outside and in our backfield, and we’ll use it as much as we possibly can,” Hall said. “They’re all great weapons and whoever has the ball in their hands has that breakaway ability to score.”
Up front in the trenches offensively and defensively, Grant Mastin leads the charge alongside Nate O’Bryan, A.J. Denny, Trent Evans, Tylen Messer, Caeleb McGraw, Hayden Bice, Ty Jones and Dillon DeLong will all see action.
“Though we didn’t get as many games in as usual because of COVID, we still had a season, which is invaluable because most of these guys were sophomores and juniors last season,” Hall said. “Now they have that year of experience and understand what it’s like to compete at the top level.
“This is probably the most experienced team I’ve ever had returning. Usually 12-15 kids are gone, but everyone is back except seven kids.”
Mastin will also slide back to linebacker, joining Winters, Bragg, Mapes, Brodie Butcher and Brayden Powell to form the front seven.
On the back end in the secondary, Spires is back as one of the top corners in Southeast Ohio alongside Prater, Blankenship, Wood, Wolford, Xander Karagosian, Bo Landrum and Evan Jarvis.
“There’s a lot of depth in our secondary, and guys all around are going to have a lot of chances to play,” Hall said. “And with how tough our schedule is, we’ll need every bit of depth.”
Jackson’s non-conference schedule might be the toughest in Southeast Ohio considering it’s playing Wheelersburg, Licking Valley and Ironton, all of whom have played and/or won a state championship in the last five seasons in addition to Logan and the up-tempo offense of Western Brown.
But it’s all part of the plan to make sure Jackson is prepared for the Division III playoffs, in which it plans to make a huge splash.
“Our goal every year is win the conference and host a playoff game or two, that’s how we want to build our program,” Hall said. “Ultimately, we want to reach a regional final, but we have to take care of things in October and early November to play in late November. We changed some things in our program off the field and it’ll lead to success on the field.”
Jackson opens its season on Aug. 19 at home against Logan.