By Craig Sager II
There is a potent combination of pride and optimism brewing in Rossville, Ga., as the Ridgeland Panthers dive head-first into their offseason preparation.
The program is coming off its best season (11-1) since reaching the state finals in 2012 (13-2) and returns plenty of talent and leadership to its roster. Both the offense and defense dominated the competition a year ago, posting a 39.4 average margin of victory in the first-ever undefeated regular season in program history. But following an especially promising 63-7 victory to open last year’s Class AAAA state playoffs, Ridgeland’s 11-game winning streak and magical season slowed to a crawl in a 28-21 loss to Jefferson in the second round. Then, less than two months later, head coach Wesley Tankersley resigned after three years at the helm and accepted the head coaching job at Stephens County, leaving the Panthers hunting for a new head coach.
That coaching search ended on Feb. 21 as Rossville native Cortney Braswell returned to his hometown and was announced the program’s eighth head coach. Two of Braswell’s siblings and both parents went to Ridgeland High School (Rossville High School and Chattanooga Valley combined to form Ridgeland in 1989), but Braswell attended Baylor School in Tennessee.
“I’m the only one that didn’t go to Ridgeland,” chuckled Braswell. “But seriously.”
Baylor is an athletic powerhouse in Chattanooga and boasts more combined TSSAA state titles than any other school in Tennessee. As a running back at Baylor, Braswell was a TSSAA Mr. Football Finalist and was named first-team all-city four times and all-state twice. He set school records for rushing yards in a game, career rushing yardage and rushing touchdowns scored. He was also a two-time state champion in the 400- and 800-meter relay.
Success has continued to follow Braswell throughout his coaching journey, and at just 30 years old, his achievements from the sideline are just getting started.
Braswell’s hands-on approach and “100 percent responsibility, 0 percent excuses” philosophy has quickly caught on with the Panthers. Braswell has instituted other changes as well. This season, Ridgeland will abandon the traditional Wing-T offense it has been using for years, and quarterback Tanner Hill will take on a much bigger offensive role for his senior season.
“We’ll go where (Hill) goes this season,” said Braswell, “and we’ve got a special one with No. 1.”
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Hill is expected to become more of a game manager this season, and the skill positions will see an increased role in the new system. A believer that discomfort leads to progress, Braswell is anticipating that the installment of a new offense and the other variations being added to both sides of the football will increase the competitiveness, fast-track the evaluation process and set the tempo this offseason.
In the trenches, Ridgeland’s Fred Norman Jr. has already had a busy offseason, playing in the Georgia Elite Classic junior game this past December and using his 6-foot-6, 295-pound frame to average a double-double on Ridgeland’s basketball team.
The Panthers’ work this offseason will be put to the test right out the gate as they square off with defending Class AAA state champion Calhoun in Game 1 of the 2018 MetroPCS Corky Kell Classic on Aug. 16. Ridgeland is 0-4 all-time against Hal Lamb’s Yellow Jackets and lost 37-0 the last time it opened the season against Calhoun (2013).
“To quote the great Rick Flair, ‘To be the man, you gotta beat the man,’” said Braswell. “We know that we can’t call ourselves great until we start beating great teams. And we are going to know where we stand on Aug. 16.”