The Raiders have gone through quite a bit in recent months - a coaching change, a flood, the coronavirus.
After battling through an off-season of change and adversity, players are ready to take the field and get the 2020 season under way.
On Friday, the Raiders will open their season against Pillow Academy in a home game. Last year, JA traveled to Greenwood, where they fell in a close matchup that was characterized by turnovers.
“The thing that got us is we turned over the ball four or five times,” head coach Lance Pogue said. “We can’t afford to do that.”
Pogue took over as head coach in December, after former coach Larry Weems resigned.
Since then, it’s been a rollercoaster ride for the Raiders. In February, flooding from the Pearl River inundated Raider Park, forcing spring sports to be moved. Those same sports, as well as in-person classes, were later canceled in response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Pogue said his players are looking forward to playing and have enjoyed being back at practice.
“You can see the joy and the happiness they have,” he said. “I certainly understand we’re in uncharted times, and I’m sensitive to our situation, but these kids, and it’s not just JA kids, want to play the game and experience what teens in high school get to experience.
“We’re going to do our best to give them that opportunity in the safest manner possible.”
JA is coming off a disappointing 7-5 season – a season that got off on the wrong foot even before the first ball was snapped.
Two of the team’s top athletes, quarterback Jackson Conn and linebacker Donovan Veasley, were lost to season-ending injuries prior the first game.
Several guys stepped into the gap (Backup quarterback Andrew Holmes completed 69 passes for 821 yards and six touchdowns on the season.), but Pogue said the loss of the two key players was hard to overcome.
“You go into last season and you’re excited about your quarterback and about having the best defensive player in the league and they’re done before the first kickoff,” he said. “It’s a blow psychologically.
“I hope they catch some good breaks this year, stay injury free and have a senior year they’ll love.”
After sitting out last year, Conn, a senior, is expected to start at quarterback. Veasley, also a senior, is expected to start at linebacker.
JA’s offensive ground game will be led by senior Parker Ryan and junior Marcus Harris.
As a junior, Ryan rushed for 398 yards and six touchdowns, and caught the ball for another 36 yards.
Harris had a stellar sophomore year, carrying the ball 214 times for 1,552 yards and 19 touchdowns.
“He put himself on the map,” Pogue said. “He worked hard through the off-season, through COVID and up to now, to get his body in shape. We count on him to capitalize on his sophomore season and have a great junior year.”
Harris was a highlight of an otherwise rough season. On the year, JA outscored opponents 333 to 296, and averaged 27.8 points per game, three more than opponents.
However, the team struggled defensively, giving up 2,412 rushing yards and 1,338 passing yards.
Offensively, JA recorded 32 fumbles on the year, including 12 for a loss.
Seven of those fumbles, including four for a loss, came in JA’s first matchup of the year, which was a 26-21 loss to Pillow Academy.
“Our goal this year is to function at a higher level, not turn the ball over and have a solid defense,” said Pogue. “A lot of times, you lose the first game because of mistakes.”
In the season opener, the Raiders got off to a fast start, scoring 14 points in the first quarter to the Mustang’s seven. JA stalled in the second quarter, giving up 12 unanswered points.
Pillow would go on to win that game and notch a 9-3 overall record and would go on to the playoffs, where they fell to Heritage Academy, the eventual MAIS 5A champs.
After losing three of their first five matches, JA would win four of its next five, and earn a first-round bye in the MAIS Class 6A playoffs.
“We have to secure the ball and eliminate big plays, and have a good, solid kicking game,” Pogue said. “Turnovers and big plays make a difference.”
Jackson Academy will face off against Pillow Academy at 7 p.m., Friday, August 21. The game is at home.
Raiders’ Keys to Victory
Control the line of scrimmage: With new starters at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, the veteran offensive line will have to step up.
Limit Mistakes: Turnovers and penalties could be costly if the game is close.
At A Glance
Class/Division: Class: 6A, District 1 (MAIS)
Head Coach: Lance Pogue
Assistant Coaches: Danny Robertson, Trey Bayliss, Bryan madden, Tommy Ferrill, Kyle Smith, Justin Shannon
2018 record: 7-5