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Caleb Turrentine / The Tribune Elmore County’s Payton Stephenson (3) tries to stay on his feet after getting hit by Tallassee’s Clayten Gough.

It could be easy to get swept up in the negativity surrounding the Elmore County football program this season. The Panthers won just two games for the third time in the last four years and saw their losing streak in region games climb to 13 games, continuing the school’s longest playoff drought since 1971.

“Of course, we want to win more games,” ECHS coach Jordan Cantrell said. “There’s pressure every week and every year. I’m the head coach and I’m responsible for that. This happens sometimes but of course, we want to get better.”

However, it’s not always as simple as wins and losses and Cantrell is making sure his players know that after his third season with the team. Most importantly, he wants to remind them of how fortunate they were to get to play the nine games they ended up with.

“I’m happy we got to finish out the season,” Cantrell said. “We weren’t sure if we could even get to play. We had some bumps along the way and were affected for a couple of weeks but I’m proud of our team. Our record wasn’t what we wanted but we had almost a brand-new team across the board. There is still a lot to take from the season and a lot to build upon.”

Despite winning the first game of the season, it did not take long for some disappointment to set in. The Panthers dropped rivalry games in back-to-back weeks despite holding leads in the second half, starting an eight-game losing streak in the middle of the season.

While the losses were stacking up, so were the injuries. Elmore County saw key players go down including more than half of an already small senior class.

The Panthers were forced to turn to several younger newcomers early in the season and even though it didn’t always lead to a win, plenty of improvement was made along the way.

“It was a total improvement from all of our guys,” Cantrell said. “Offensively, we were very vanilla in our first win and didn’t advance much until later in the season. We had to be basic but we really improved and got to use a number of those guys in multiple spots.”

In their first season with the team, Payton Stephenson and Sean Darnell played vital roles in the backfield, often swapping spots between quarterback and running back. Both players recorded touchdowns by passing, running and receiving the ball at least once this season.

“The other night, we won a football game because we were able to be diverse,” Cantrell said, mentioning Elmore County’s win over Jemison in the season finale. “They all contribute in different ways. You have to mix it up sometimes.”

Freshmen Jabari Murphy and CJ Wilkes saw more and more opportunities as the season went on and capitalized on their limited touches. On the team, the Panthers had 40 underclassmen on their roster of 56 players and they hope getting that youth some experience this season will pay off down the road.

“They have to realize there is a lot of potential in the team,” Cantrell said. “We have to keep working. Now, it’s about winning in the offseason.”

Caleb Turrentine is a sports writer for Tallapoosa Publishers Inc.