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FOOTBALL PREVIEW: Pinecrest Academy, Mount Paran switch roles in region clash
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Pinecrest Academy quarterback Ryan McCarthy had some of his best performances last season against Mount Paran. - photo by Bill Brown

Mount Paran at Pinecrest Academy

When, where: Friday, 7:30 p.m., at Pinecrest Academy in Cumming.

Records, rankings: Mount Paran is 3-1 overall, 1-1 in Region 6-1A, Div. B and unranked in Class 1A; Pinecrest is 3-1, 2-0 and unranked.

Series record: Mount Paran leads 2-1.

Last meeting: Pinecrest won 28-21 in 2015.

The last time Mount Paran and Pinecrest Academy’s football teams met, it was a cold and wet November night with the Region 6-1A championship at stake. Players’ breath filled the air with a fog. Their cleats tore up the fragile field. Mud splattered jerseys. Photos of the game – with players draped on each other and both teams’ uniforms turned an indistinguishable brown – resembled scenes from a Civil War battlefield.

The Paladins didn’t lack motivation. Mount Paran was the defending state champion at the time, ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 1A, the defending region champion and undefeated. Plus, Pinecrest had already lost earlier in the regular season to Mount Paran in a region cross-over game. So the Paladins had every reason to be as crisp and physical as they could be, and it worked: Pinecrest won 28-21 to win the region title.

Now, going into tonight’s crucial Region 6-1A, Div. B game against Mount Paran (3-1, 1-1), the Paladins (3-1, 2-0) are discovering what it is like to face teams as the defending region champions.

“What I’ve told the kids is everybody is coming to beat you,” Pinecrest head coach Todd Winter said.

Except, no one in the region has. The Paladins are perfect so far, but they have felt a difference in the intensity of their opponents’ play this season.

Pinecrest opened region play with a 35-0 victory against Walker, but the Paladins led just 7-0 at halftime. Last week, Pinecrest needed a game-winning field goal as time expired in a 17-14 victory at Mount Pisgah.

“We kind of got an idea of it after the Walker game, because those guys played so hard against us and never let up,” Winter said. “And then obviously we felt it last Friday.”

It is a new role for Pinecrest. The Paladins had won region titles in 2007 and 2009 while in the Georgia Independent School Association, but not since joining the Georgia High School Association, the state’s largest governing body for high school sports, in 2010, and never since Winter was hired in 2012.

Last season’s win against Mount Paran was a touchstone victory for Pinecrest.

“That’s where you want to be,” Winter said. “You want to be the team that everybody wants to beat. And in our region on our side, I feel like we’re that team. We have to understand that, we have to embrace it, but it should not affect how we play. We have to walk on the field and expect victory. … I really feel like our kids are playing to win. 

Pinecrest feels it is prepared for Mount Paran’s best effort, with a defense that has allowed just 14 points in two region games, and an offense as balanced as it’s ever been under Winter. Five different players have rushed for more than 100 yards in Michael Birozes (231), Carson Holler (192), Hunter Hawk (163), Brooks Binkley (153) and Ryan McCarthy (125).

Mount Paran is a decidedly different team on offense without running back Taylor Trammell, a talented baseball first-round draft pick who rushed for over 2,500 yards and 38 touchdowns last season.

But Mount Paran now has the motivation Pinecrest once used to spoil the Eagles’ region title hopes.

“They’re still a well-coached football team,” Winter said. “They’re still a very physical football team. And I have no doubt in my mind that they’re really looking forward to coming over here and playing.”