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PIGSKIN PREVIEW: Paladins eyeing another year of improvement
Tony Novo, Bill Bear, Peter Haynes, Matthew Del Bazo and Bryce Balthaser will be key pieces for a new-look Pinecrest team this season. - photo by Ben Hendren

By Cameron Adamczyk

For the Forsyth County News

Pinecrest Academy is not like the other football programs in the county. They are the only 1A school, meaning their roster of players is shallow in numbers. They have a former NFL Pro Bowler leading their team, and they constantly have to adapt around almost all of their players playing on both sides of the field.

What sets them apart also makes them one of the more intriguing teams to watch. When head coach Terance Mathis took over three seasons ago, Pinecrest was infamous for their triple option style of play. Coming from the NFL, Mathis implemented his own style of offense, one that looks more familiar to that of the other county schools. The adjustment was difficult, as the Paladins went winless in their 2017 campaign. But last year, the adjustments began to look justified, as they finished 4-7 overall and 3-4 in their region.

But the things that set them apart also make it increasingly difficult to sustain success. Pinecrest only has around 30 players on their roster for the upcoming season. They have to replace quarterback Ryan Difazio and running back Patrick Sullivan, both of which were pivotal parts in making the transition from triple option to a spread style of play.

At quarterback, the Paladins will turn to junior Bryce Balthaser. He was the JV starter last season, giving him some experience playing in the offensive scheme. While he did get JV starts, it still remains to be seen how well he can transition into varsity competition. Mathis remains optimistic about their offensive outlook despite the inexperience.

“(Balthaser is) really, really, really green at quarterback so we’re going to do some things differently to make sure he’s successful,” Mathis said. “That’s one thing you learn from playing around all different levels and being around different coaches. You can have the best system out there, but if you don’t have the players to run that system, you’re not going to be successful.”

Similarly, junior Tony Novo takes over at tailback. Novo did not get many reps at the varsity level last season, but Mathis likes his talent and potential. On the defensive side of the ball, Pinecrest notably had Tim Lewis serve as their defensive coordinator in 2018. Lewis was another high-profile name with NFL experience that was added to the staff last season. Lewis played in the NFL himself, but he also served as a defensive coordinator for the New York Giants for multiple seasons. Lewis left the staff for the 2019 season, but the effect he brought to the team can still be felt.

“Coach Lewis is very thorough,” Senior defensive back and receiver Sawyer Huffstetler said. “We’ll have a meeting on defense and we’ll only go over Cover 3 the whole time. And he goes exactly where every single person’s supposed to be standing, before the ball’s snapped, when the play’s happening and after. So all the stuff he’s taught us throughout the last year has really stuck with us.”

Pinecrest brings back their leading tackler from last season, Joey Kiernan. He will be the obvious leader on the defensive side. With so many of Pinecrest’s defensive playmakers from last season graduated, Kiernan’s senior leadership will be paramount to finding success.

After last season, Mathis feels that Pinecrest has established a new culture. The coaching staff is filled with people who have played at the highest level. They have a system that feels more modern and dynamic. They bordered on the state playoffs last season, and seeing that three of their losses were within one possession, it’s clear that their expectations have also realigned.

“The standard has been set,” Mathis said. “We know what to expect. I feel like it’s not ‘Poor little Pinecrest’ anymore. I think people know what we’re going to bring every Friday night… We have much respect for our opponents, but we don’t fear them.”