By Steven Watkins
For the Forsyth County News
With just enough time left on cold and rainy Friday night for one final play, soaking-wet jerseys of green, white and newly, muddied-brown lined up near the 20-yardline as Pinecrest Academy prepared to send up a final prayer—this one a Hail Mary—and make a last-ditch attempt at both a winning record and a victory over visiting Mount Paran.
Pinecrest quarterback Ryan DiFazio took the final snap, dropped back and heaved the pigskin in the direction of the chaotic mass of bodies waiting at midfield.
The ball smacked off the waiting hands of a Mt. Paran defender and splashed into the soggy field, laying to rest an agonizingly-close 14-7 loss at the hands of the Eagles and the final hope of finishing the 2018 season above .500.
The Paladins (4-5) capped off their regular season schedule with what easily was the most impressive performance from a defense that showed obvious and encouraging improvement throughout the 2018 campaign, holding a potent Eagles offense that entered averaging 30 points per game to a stingy 14 and only surrendering the first lead of the night with a hair over two minutes remaining.
With a trio of timeouts and the game on the line, the Paladin offense started on its own 23 and swiftly began picking up chunks of yardage.
DiFazio gained 17 yards on a first-down keeper that very nearly broke for a touchdown, with the final defender between he and empty field managing to bump him out of bounds.
The senior quarterback followed with a pair of completions for nine and seven yards, the latter of which also resulted in an intentional facemask call on Mount Paran that set the Paladins up with a first-and-10 at the Eagles’ 31-yard line with 1:17 left to play and a realistic opportunity to force overtime.
Two plays later, as sophomore running back Tony Novo plunged forward on his 15th carry, the rain-slicked football slipped out of his hands and into the arms of a Mount Paran defender, resulting in Pinecrest’s second turnover of the game and giving the Eagles possession with less than a minute remaining.
The Paladin defense would clamp down for one, final time, forcing a three-and-out and returning the ball to their offense at their own four-yard line after the punt, yet the true opportunity and the game with it had fallen back to earth with the previous fumble.
In his second year with the team, despite the noticeable strides made from 2017’s winless season, head coach Terrance Mathis’ squad will finish shy of a winning record in the regular season.
“Two plays decided that whole game,” Mathis said. “What it came down to was field position and who was going to make a play, and they made a play.”
The bright spots of the narrow defeat were plentiful. Freshman punter Colin Brown repeatedly flipped the field in a contest in which field position was so crucial.
DiFazio kept his offense moving by what at times seemed a sheer force of will, escaping a constant source of pressure from the Eagle defense and shedding tackle after tackle, more often than not for positive yardage.
Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis’ unit bottled up a capable Eagles offense, notching an interception in the process and giving their offense a genuine opportunity to win the game.
“His (Lewis’) influence has been incredible,” Mathis said. “You’ve got to understand, (we) played a lot of plays, and we only gave up 14 points. That’s amazing.”
In spite of the loss and the Paladins’ thin margin between making the Class 1A-Private playoffs and missing out, Mathis has no intention of losing any of the ground he and his squad have fought hard for throughout the duration of the season.
“We’re expecting to finish strong,” Mathis said. “I don’t know where we’ll be playing at next week, but we expect to finish strong.”