KENNESAW — Seconds after Tripp Hochman hit the turf on the sideline, Terance Mathis was there, yelling encouragement and helping the sophomore cornerback up after he broke up what would have been a long completion.
Mathis has had to do this a lot in his first year as Pinecrest's head football coach, during which the Paladins have lost all five games, the most recent being a 41-7 defeat to Mount Paran in Kennesaw on Friday. Pinecrest fell out of range of the Eagles within the first two quarters, so Mathis had to bring his own energy and optimism, clapping and telling the team not to be discouraged, to keep fighting.
"Go out there like you're ready to win a football game!" he said as Pinecrest took the field in the third quarter, trailing 31-0.
Mount Paran, ranked No. 7 in Class A, did not look like an easy opponent for the Paladins heading into the matchup. Mathis knew the team would have to at least match the Eagles intensity to stay in the game. The Paladins (0-5, 0-3 Region 6B-A) did get some early luck, with a muffed punt on their first offensive possession putting them inside Mount Paran's 10-yard line, but that drive ended in a blocked field goal.
The Eagles (4-1, 3-0) took firm control soon after that. They found space with passes and runs, regularly slipping through tackles, and Pinecrest's offensive line couldn't give its own playmakers sufficient room to work.
"We were off offensively tonight," Mathis said. "That's the first time in a long time we've looked like offensively, and it was surprising to me, because the last two weeks we looked so, so good, so efficient."
Linebacker Nolan Stafford, one of the team's captains, expressed confidence after the game in the team's scheme and mindset and was adamant that a turnaround wasn't far off.
"You can only go up," Stafford said. "You can only get better. And I'm fed up with this, I think the team's fed up with this (and) the coaches are fed up with this. It's time to make a change with this team."
Mathis carried his positive outlook into the postgame speech, where his tone was measured and direct. He complimented the team's unity, saying that he didn't see any figure-pointing and blaming going around with the players.
"If you're going to point a finger, point it this way," Mathis said, motioning toward himself.
In fact, the one major moment of pessimism from Mathis turned out to be misplaced. Late in the third quarter, Pinecrest got back in Mount Paran's red zone with the help of two personal fouls on the Eagles and a 22-yard completion from Mickey Mangan to David Stubbs. Mangan scampered 10 yards into the end zone on the next play, but flags flew in the backfield.
"No, no, no!" Mathis yelled on the sideline.
His anguish wasn't needed, though. The flags were for defensive holding, and the touchdown stood.