Union County is in the midst of an historic run with its football program, led by 15th year head coach Brian Allison. And while even Allison claims there “is always a high level of expectations,” there’s no doubt this 2016 Panthers team is exceeding outside expectations.
It’s been three straight years of making the state playoffs, something never before accomplished in Union County history. In fact, since 1957, the school’s first year, they had only made the playoffs once (2001) until this recent stretch. Allison, who was head coach for the Panthers from 1996-01 before leaving, returned in 2008 and has taken the program to new heights.
Five times in UCHS history, the football team has won nine or more games. Allison has coached three of those teams (’01, ’14, ’15) and this year’s team has the chance to duplicate that success. One thing all Union fans would like to see change – getting past the first round of the state playoffs. Despite hosting a playoff game in each of the past two years as a number-two seed, the Panthers lost by a kick to Model in 2014 and in overtime to Bowdon last year.
The Panthers have never won a state playoff game. All that being said, when the Panthers were forced to go on without perhaps the all-time greatest to play at Union County in quarterback Joseph Mancuso (Richmond Spiders quarterback), many assumed there would be a bit more of a decline this season, naturally. Not to mention Union County jumped classifications from 2A to 3A…voluntarily.
However, junior Cole Wright has led an offense that has scored 308 points (38.5 per game). Wright, learning under Mancuso for the past two years, is similar but different to Mancuso.
“He doesn’t have the arm that Joe has,” says Allison. “But his feet are great and he can really run the ball.”
Wright has 1,291 passing yards (10 TD) and 1,016 rushing yards (12 TD), accounting for about 2,300 yards of offense and 22 scores. Mancuso also was a dual threat, passing for 8,110 yards (88 TD) and rushing for 2,048 yards and 21 TDs for a grand total of over 10,000 yards and 109 TDs.
With Wright’s ability to beat defenses through the air or on the ground, it’s been hard to stop him for opponents, but fun for all to watch. He’s complimented by a steady running game by senior Bo Lynch (572 yds, 12 TD). He has targets in the passing game that have been doing a great job as well: juniors Sean Dobbins (319 yds, 3 TD), Erik Strayer (227 yds, TD) and Logan Dyer (190 yds, TD) among others.
The Panthers’ toughest games are behind them, as they lost to both #1-ranked GAC and #9-ranked Dawson County, both still undefeated in region play. With everyone else in 7-AAA essentially fighting for the third and fourth spots to advance to state, Union made a huge statement in Week 8 when overcoming a furious North Hall comeback and holding on for the thrilling region win. The victory put Union at 2-2 in the region, almost assuring it a spot in the state playoffs. However, work is still to be done with Fannin County (2-5; 0-3) and Lumpkin County (3-4; 1-2) still to come.
The great news is that the Panthers’ fate is in their hands. If they win the final two, they’ll snag the third seed. If they split, North Hall could leapfrog Union (IF they also won their final two games). Lumpkin still has a slight chance to make it, while Fannin and East Hall would have to win out their final three games and hope someone else loses to have a realistic shot.
Union will get a chance to rest and prepare for Fannin County in Week 10, as Week 9 (October 21) marks a bye week for the Panthers.