Nearly three years to the day that he was introduced as the seventh head football coach in Ridgeland High School history, Wesley Tankersley has stepped down as the Panthers' head coach.
Tankersley, a two-time Region 6-AAAA Coach of the Year, is leaving northwest Georgia for northeast Georgia to take over the program at Stephens County High School in Toccoa.
"My time at Ridgeland has been great and the administration, students and coaches have just been awesome," Tankersley said. "But I just felt the position at Stephens County really appealed to me. My wife and I love that area and (the football program) has a rich tradition. We just felt like it was a great opportunity for our family at this point in time.
"It's bittersweet for us. We definitely love it at Ridgeland, but we're excited about the opportunities there at Stephens County."
The Stephens County school board approved the hire on Thursday morning, according to a published report by Ethan Jordan of WNEGRadio.com and Tankersley broke the news to members of the Ridgeland team in a meeting at 4 p.m. this afternoon.
"The hardest part about it is telling the players," he explained. "I pride myself as someone who puts a lot into his players and I work hard to try and create great relationships with them, so leaving them is the toughest part of it all. The kids at Ridgeland have meant so much to me and my wife, Bree, and our kids have become close with them too. It's the hardest part of making this decision."
Tankersley came to Ridgeland in January 2015, replacing Mark Mariakis, who had stepped down after a successful 11-year stint that saw the program win four region titles and make a run to the Class AAAA state championship game in 2012.
Before he arrived at Ridgeland, Tankersley was an assistant coach at Central Gwinnett and later at his alma mater, Gilmer. He took over as head coach at Gilmer in 2008 and went 41-34 in seven seasons, including a 31-9 stretch from 2011 to 2014. He was twice named Region Coach of the Year while with the Bobcats.
He went 4-7 in 2015 with a young Ridgeland team, but used two mini-game playoff victories to get into the state playoffs, where they put a huge scare into heavily-favored St. Pius X on the road before falling, 28-19, in the opening round.
The Panthers used the playoff game as a springboard into the 2016 campaign where they went 9-2 and claimed a Region 6-AAAA championship. Their only regular season loss was one-point decision at Pickens and the Panthers avenged their loss to St. Pius in the opening round, this time at home, before losing to an athletic Spalding club in round two.
This past season, Ridgeland climbed as high as No. 2 in the state polls and made history by going 10-0 for the first time ever. Behind a defense that ranked first in Class AAAA in points allowed per game and an offense ranked second in Class AAAA in points scored per game, the Panthers bulldozed Chapel Hill in the opening round, but lost a 28-21 heartbreaker to perennial powerhouse Jefferson in a battle of top 10 teams.
During his three years at Ridgeland, Tankersley had an overall record of 24-10 with two region championships, had several players sign college scholarships and saw 11 different players earn All-State status, five as first teamers. This past season, the Panthers had four first team selections.
"We won some games and region titles and things like that, but what I'm most proud of (at Ridgeland) is the relationships we made with the kids," he added. "I'll always feel like my time was positive with the kids here. As I told them today, they will always be my football players, no matter where I am. They have my cell phone number and they can call me if they ever need me.
"If we had any success here, it was because of those relationships and letting the kids know that we cared. That's what it's all about."