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Football: Aided by NFL coaches, Kiernan leading Pinecrest defense
Joey Kiernan
Pinecrest Academy linebacker Joey Kiernan, left, closes in on an Athens Christian player earlier this year. - photo by David Roberts

Not many high school football players are coached by a former Pro Bowler.

Even fewer play under a defensive coordinator who served in the same capacity at the game's highest level. 

But Pinecrest Academy has both in head coach Terance Mathis and defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. So, linebacker Joey Kiernan realizes how fortunate the small, Class 1A school is to have such experience.

"We're all teenagers, and we all think we're right, but he's done it at the highest level and he knows what's going to work and what doesn't," Kiernan said of Lewis. "It's just whether or not we execute it."

Mathis sees it both ways.

Lewis, who started his professional coaching career in 1995 as a defensive backs coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers and has served as defensive coordinator with the Steelers and New York Giants, brings a wealth of experience to the Paladins. 

But Lewis obviously can't fill gaps or chase down quarterbacks himself. He needs capable players like Kiernan to execute the gameplan and do those things for him.

"It makes Coach Lewis' job a little easier when Joey is on the field," Mathis said. "Does Joey make mistakes? He does — we all do. But at the end of the day, Coach Lewis feels confident when Joey's on the field. At least in 90-plus percentage of the time, he's going to do something right."

Pinecrest Academy linebacker Joey Kiernan forces a fumble earlier this season during a game against Athens Christian. - photo by David Roberts
Kiernan, who is listed at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, was Pinecrest's leading tackler last year with 95 total stops and a blocked punt. Despite missing the Paladins' opener against Fellowship Christian, Kiernan has a handful of tackles and even forced a fumble in his first game back from injury against Athens Christian. 

"Joey is a football player. He's not the fastest, not the quickest, but he knows what he's doing," Mathis said. "In this defense, if you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, you can make plays. He reads things well, gets there in a hurry and is a big, physical kid."

The defense Pinecrest plays isn't complicated.

In fact, Kiernan said Lewis' motto is, 'If you can count to three, you can play for me.'

Lewis will soon exit for a gig coaching defensive backs for the St. Louis BattleHawks of the recently revived XFL, however.

Kiernan explains that the Paladins' defense is simplified so that each player has just two or three responsibilities, depending on the position.

"I feel like we definitely outscheme teams defensively," Kiernan said. "We're not going to outathletic anyone, we're not going to outrun — we don't have that here. But we can outscheme, outknowledge them. I mean, all of our coaches have experience. Two NFL guys right there, one NFL guy right there. It's crazy, just the knowledge and experience we have."

Kiernan, who left Pinecrest after third grade before returning for his freshman year, has played for many football coaches. 

The difference with Lewis, he said, is that while the former NFL coach is vocal, he's also constructive.

"He's going to yell at you. He's going to yell at you, but he's going to correct you, which is the most important thing," Kiernan said. "There's a lot of coaches that just yell, and it's like they don't actually explain what we're doing wrong. Our coaches do a very good job of getting on us, and I think that's the best way to coach, because if you don't get on someone, it's not going to do anything. If you get on them and teach, that's the best way for everyone to learn.

"Your feelings are going to get hurt if you play for him, but you just listen to the message and not the tone, and that's honestly the best way. I mean, I love his coaching."

Through three games this season, Pinecrest's opponents have scored 108 points against the Paladins.

This week, however, Pinecrest (0-3) hopes to limit a Walker team that has just seven points in its past two games.

Defensive back Nikitas Missos was a bright spot for Pinecrest last week in a 27-0 loss to Whitefield Academy, picking off three passes. 

As long as Kiernan remains healthy, though, Mathis likes what he has on defense.

"Before the season started, I said if he's not one of the best linebackers in the county, for sure he's the best in the region, and he is," Mathis said. "He makes a lot of plays for us."