Macon Middle School Panthers repeat as fall champions

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Dan Finnerty

Macon Middle School (MMS) is getting used to successful sports programs. On the heels of numerous championships realized in 2022, the school is back at it again this fall season.

The football Panthers played in the Blue Ridge Athletic Conference (BRAC) championship game versus Waynesville on Oct. 19; this was a rematch of last year’s championship game that the Panthers won. The game was no-contest with the Mountaineers never scoring and only getting into MMS territory two or three times in the game’s entirety. In the 28-0 shutout, quarterback Paxton Sutton and receiver/running back Garret Young dominated for the Panthers on offense. On the defensive side, few tackles were missed and MMS kept Waynesville off balance and stymied the entire game. The MMS Panthers are now back-to-back champions after defeating the Mountaineers last year by a score of 28-8

Additionally, the soccer and volleyball teams each participated in conference championships as well. After defeating Flat Rock in the semi-final, 3-1, boys’ soccer played the Polk County Wolverines Monday, Oct. 23 with MMS winning a thrilling, two-overtime, two-penalty kick marathon, 1-1 (6-5). The winning goal for the Panthers was scored by sixth grader and first-year player, Sam Antoine. The Panthers’ goalie, eighth grader Drew Hodges, stopped the last two Wolverines shots, consecutively, to seal the win.

Following the exciting game, fans, parents, and siblings ran onto the field to celebrate the win with coaches and players. About the victorious outcome, Assistant Soccer Coach Bryan Wilkinson said, “It’s games like today that makes coaching a wonderful experience. We saw players step up and perform tremendously and provide contributions at pivotal moments in the game. We speak constantly about culture and about establishing one that holds players to higher expectations. Tonight, these players showed what we have been speaking of all year.”

Heather Wilkinson, Sam Antoine, and Assistant Soccer Coach Bryon Wilkinson celebrate Antoine’s winning goal.

Earlier, on Oct. 18, the girls’ volleyball team won their championship, also over Polk County, 2-0 to cap a great season of their own at 12-0.

MMS Athletic Director Zach Tallent attributes the recent sports successes to a number of factors, including the students and their coaches. “The work ethic of the kids we have is part of it. In middle school athletics, these things come in waves. We just happen to have a really excellent group of kids, both athletically and motivationally. They’re competitors – they don’t like to lose and they don’t know what it’s like to lose.”

Tallent went on to say the kids play with a “chip on their shoulders and with a target on their backs,” referring to many of the squads vying for repeat championships. The BRAC actually has more schools/teams (10) than the Mountain Seven Conference, in which the Franklin High School (FHS) Panthers play (7), so it is not as if the competition is less varied or relevant.

Coaching, of course, plays a significant role in how athletes deal with physical and mental stresses of playing sports. With MMS, it is no different, according to Tallent. “We have a really great pool of coaches right now.”

Regarding some current struggles being realized at the high school level, Tallent ended with input on what FHS athletics has to look forward to: “They’ve got a lot of help coming; these kids are hungry, they don’t know how to lose.”

He also pointed out that every school participating within the Mountain Seven Conference is also present in the BRAC. This means some of the youngsters in middle school may be playing games against students from opponent schools for five or six years. Tallent sees the continuity bringing with it a sense of familiarity and experience that will make the entire athletic journey more worthwhile.