HOMERVILLE -- Clinch County High has been chosen the preseason No. 1 in Class A. Now the Panthers intend to show they're well-deserving of that honor.

Clinch opens its season Friday night in Alma against Bacon County, a Class AA team. Panthers head coach Cecil Barber thinks there will be plenty of fans who'll make the 70 mile drive from Homerville to sit in the visitor's stands.

"Our fans travel well, wherever we go," Barber said. "We've got a good group of fans."

And a good group of players.

Overall, Clinch has some of its best talent depth in years. Barber estimates he has "25 or 26 kids who can play (well)." The Panthers had over 100 players come out for football this year (including middle school), the most they've ever had.

The interest is a direct by-product of last year's playoff success, when they upset No. 3 Claxton in the second round and No. 2 Athens Academy in the quarterfinals, then gave eventual champion Buford its closest game of the season in the Georgia Dome, before bowing out 15-7. That was the only time all year that Buford did not win a game by at least 20 points.

"That really got folks excited down here," Barber said. "It was our first trip to the Dome since they started having (the semifinals) there."

That talent includes a quarterback that can pass the ball (Joe Louis Mingo), and receivers who can be playmakers when they catch it (Rance Morgan and Dexter Foster). And it includes the typical fast Clinch tailback, now Lorenzo Kelsaw. The Panthers also once again have a strong defense, led by All-State linebacker Paul Tolbert, which should get better as the season goes on.

Will that translate into a state championship?

"Well, we hope so," Barber said. "But we're a long ways from that point right now."

Bacon (2-9 last year) should be one of Clinch's easiest games this year, because the Panthers, in typical Clinch fashion, have assembled another tough schedule.

"The past few years, we've been so good that there's not a lot of teams that want to play us," Clinch head coach Cecil Barber said. "So we wind up playing bigger schools."

This year, the Panthers face AA No. 7 Charlton County, Class A No. 4 Johnson County and AAAA Bainbridge, which just moved down from AAAAA. They also face Worth County, traditionally a playoff team, and McIntosh County Academy, the unofficial No. 11 team in Class A (they gathered the most votes of any team not to make the Top 10).

"We may not make it through the regular season undefeated and No. 1," Barber said. "But at the same time, the competition will help us prepare for the playoffs, and the teams we'll see then."

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