When Pinecrest Academy lost 52-0 at South Forsyth in its season opener, Paladins head coach Todd Winter reassured his group of how far they had come and how far they still had to go.
“I told those guys that we were going to be the last team standing out of the county when it was all said and done,” said Winter, who ambitiously scheduled the War Eagles from Class 7A as a strategic way to earn points in the Class 1A power ratings.
If the Paladins (8-3) truly end up being the last team in Forsyth to put on helmets, it will mean more than just a credit to Winter’s philosophy—it would be the farthest the program has ever gone since joining the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) in 2010.
Winter’s crew took over in 2012 and made the playoffs two years later. Last season they won their first playoff game in the new league. This year a victory would mean the first time the program has advanced to the third round. Though, there is a catch: because of the playoff expansion in Class 1A private school playoffs from 16 to 24 teams, Pinecrest will need another win to make it back to the quarterfinals.
To do it, they’ll have to take down Wesleyan. Although Winter has only been coaching in Georgia for a few seasons, he’s made himself known as a trove of historical facts about Pinecrest’s athletic history. On Wednesday night he dropped a good one.
“You know, as far as we can tell Pinecrest has never beaten Wesleyan in anything,” Winter said.
Only twice has the football program taken on the Wolves, which have had winning seasons 12 of their 18 years of existence and double-digit wins five times, including a 2008 state championship. In those two contests—2010 and 2011—the Paladins were outscored a combined 92-21. Wesleyan is also back in the Class 1A private school playoffs for the first time since making its rounds in Class 2A for the past four seasons, so there should be an expectation from its program to breeze through the early part of the postseason.
The Paladins feel prepared for the moment, partially because they’ve still familiarized themselves with the Wolves over the past three seasons—which means the seniors leading this year’s team have developed a long, detailed scouting report of the opponent.
“In the last scrimmage it was a bit more unconventional, but we kept them out of the end zone,” Winter said. “It’s a big deal for us to get them on a game that matters. They have 15 coaches, we have five. They have about 10 to 15 more kids than us. They are a very disciplined team that is going to execute and we have to be prepared to play one of our best games of the year.”
That will be a big swing for Pinecrest, which struggled last week in a 14-7 win over Brookstone at home. There were some bright spots, however. Had quarterback Ryan McCarthy not fumbled the ball inside his own 20-yard line, Pinecrest might have recorded its fourth shutout of the season.
Pinecrest hasn’t allowed more than two scores in any of its eight wins on the year, so defensively they’re prepared to take on a Wesleyan team that averages 38.6 points per game.
“It’s going to start with turnovers, field position, then it’s tackling in space and blocking. Against Brookstone last week we didn’t do a good job with those things, we complicated the game,” Winter said. “When you look at this week, we are more similar than it looks. They are plus-15 in turnovers and so are we. Their only losses were against really tough teams, just like us.”
The Paladins are healthy entering the matchup—something they couldn’t have claimed in last year’s postseason. Because of that, Winter feels that even though they had tougher losses this season, the Paladins are the best version of themselves yet.
It will be on the group of seniors that include McCarthy, Winter’s son Garrison, and a hand full of others to get Pinecrest the deepest it’s been.
“The big thing with these seniors is that we talk to every senior class about their legacy. What specifically have they done to build the program,” Winter said. “For these guys, since day one, they have gotten better each season. They helped us raise the bar as sophomores, then as juniors last year. This game is a huge opportunity for them. They don’t want to hang up the hats. They want to keep playing.”