Lumberton's Zach Jones named PineBelt Sports Coach of the Year.

By JESSE JOHNSON,

From preseason injuries to upperclassman stepping up, Lumberton put the pieces together to make a run at a state football title. Although the Panthers fell short, Coach Zach Jones led the team to a 12-4 record and PineBelt Sports Coach of the Year honors.

Growing up and playing football in Lumberton, Jones knew from the start he was destined to have a career in football as a coach. His other career path? A hostage negotiator. The residents of Lumberton and the Pine Belt are glad he chose to stay on the field.

The 1999 high school graduate played guard at Lumberton throughout his high school career.

“Football was my first love,” Jones said. “Learning to work hard and seeing the results from it started my passion of this game. Watching people grow close together and being rewarded from that hard work is one of the most gratifying thing I’ve experienced.”

With mentors like his high school football coach Greg Hamilton shaping and molding his passion for the game, Jones gathered bits and pieces of the things he was taught and instilled it into his coaching style.

“My high school head coach had a big impact on what and how I do things around here,” Jones said. “We had a good relationship. We still talk to this day. There were a lot of coaches that have made a big influence on me being here and I can’t thank them enough. It was an easy decision to choose coaching at an early age.”

Success has come fast for the fifth-year head coach. Making the playoffs in all those years and competing for a state title in two, the Panthers’ head coach has a 53-18 record.

Although the Panthers made a state run, Lumberton faced a handful of adversities throughout the season.

“We had a lot of kids step up through the year–” Jones said. “Xavier coming back from injuries was huge for us; Jason Buckley carrying us in the South State Championship game to Robert assuming the role of quarterback. We had a lot of underclassman who had to fill roles on both the offensive and defensive lines. We watched a lot of kids grow up this year. Watching those kids grow and work hard throughout the season makes our jobs fun.”

The race for a state title game didn’t start off as planned with Lumberton falling to 1-2 early in the year. They had to face challenges that will never be forgotten.

“I’ll be honest,” Jones said. “We were terrible in the Jamboree in July. We lost to West Marion later on and another game to Bay Springs. But then we started to see things come together. Our kids saw it coming together. It was big to see them not give up and continue to believe in our system. Every team takes on different adversities and our kids took and made the best of it. These are things that will help these kids later on in life.”

Lumberton went on to win the next 11-out-of-12 before falling in the state title game. Jones made a change at the quarterback position after the first few games. Robert Henry had been everyone’s radar as a rusher, and now he would showcase it under center.

“When we made a switch and put Robert under center, our offense became more fluent,” Jones said. “He is one of the best athletes I have coached. This move allowed us to get more players involved and really opened things up for us.”

In the first three games, Lumberton averaged 27 points per game. In the following 12, the Panthers averaged 43 points per game. So the gutsy call paid off for the hometown coach, eventually keeping them rolling through the playoffs and winning a South State title.

Even though Jones would have liked to have raised that golden football, he found out there are more rewarding things in life.

“We had fun this year,” he said. “We worked hard and reflecting back, we wanted to win a state title. We will never back off that mentality and goal, but watching these young men’s hard work and dedication is the best feeling I could share with them. I think that football is one of the greatest life teaching lessons there is. You are going to have your ups and downs in games as you do in life. It all comes down to you fighting and pushing through tough times. Just seeing these kids be successful is all I can ask for.”

The life of a coach can be some of the hardest times. Mentoring and shaping young men, drawing up game plans, and preparing for a long season all take a special person to direct. But it’s sometimes the wives of the coaches that are the real MVP’s of the season.

“I have taught my wife a lot about football,” Jones said. “She has been my No. 1 supporter from day one. I am thankful that I can talk to her about things. She has different perspectives about things and will question if I made a bad decision. She never complains about the time I put in and the odd hours that I devote to the game. Like I said, she is my biggest supporter and I couldn’t do it without her.”

With 2 a.m. game tape, and long grueling weeks of preparation finished for this season, Jones looks to keep his competitive mind going as he camps out in the woods in search of a big trophy deer.

“I deer hunt like I coach football,” Jones said. “I love to deer hunt. I am just as competitive with hunting than anything else I do. There is something about being out in the woods. I also use the time to relax after a long season”