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Pinecrest football ahead of schedule
Pinecrest Academy had a record number of players out for spring practice. - photo by For the Forsyth County News

Pinecrest at a glance

2012 record: 5-4, 4-3 Region 8-A

Returning starters: 5 offense, 5 defense

Key losses: QB Jimmy Strom, FB John Paul Metz, WR Zach Guard.

Key returners: OL Nick Grimaldi, OL Gatlin Winter, SB/LB Adam Guard, SB/LB Jacob Hanley, SB Mitchell Ojeda, WR Jonathan Moreno, LB Matthew Walters, DB Greg Metz, DB/K Alex Brenner, P Chris Birozes.

Key newcomers: DB/SB Anthony Carco, FB Andrew Wilborn, FB/DL Grayson Dubose, WR/DL Logan Hamilton, OL/DL Luke del Balzo, OT Logan Stafford, C Brian Flannagan, FB Greg Varghese.

Coach Todd Winter says: "That’s why I truly believe we’re going to win a state title at some point here. I believe we truly play in the toughest [Class] 1A region in the state."

Of all the signs of progress that Pinecrest Academy football coach Todd Winter saw last season – the renewed commitment to the weight room by players, the drastic improvement on offense and the marquee victories over ranked opponents – the biggest sign of all escaped the Paladins.

Pinecrest went 5-4 and missed the Class 1A private school playoffs by just three spots finishing No. 19 in the new power rankings the Georgia High School Association instituted before last season.

All of which made for a resounding first season for Pinecrest under Winter.

Consider where the Paladins and Winter are now after their second year of spring practice together. Pinecrest finished with 47 players, the largest group in school history. Players had a full offseason in Winter’s strength and conditioning program. Another spring to learn the triple option offense has let Pinecrest dig deeper into the playbook than ever before.

"We’re further ahead than this time last year," Winter said.

That’s good news for a team looking to replace some big pieces on offense, including quarterback Jimmy Strom, who set a school record with 22 touchdowns last season, and fullback John Paul Metz and wide receiver Zach Guard.

"[Strom] was an impact player," Winter said. "Losing him was just gigantic."

Replacing him will be either rising sophomore Jake Mangan or incoming rising freshman Ryan McCarthy. Adam Guard, Jacob Hanley and Mitchell Ojeda will replace Metz but provide more speed. Jonathan Moreno will step into Zach Guard’s role as the go-to receiver.

While they try to find the chemistry that helped Pinecrest average 27.1 points per game last season, its best scoring average since joining the GHSA, Winter said the Paladins will rely on their defense, led by rising sophomore linebacker Matthew Walters. Winter said he’s 6-foot-2, 230 pounds and already looks the part of a Division I athlete.

Walter will be at the forefront of the defense’s transition from the 4-3 to a 3-5 formation. It’s a change Winter said he makes reluctantly, but one he said is necessary with the amount of run-oriented offenses Pinecrest faces in Region 8-A.

"We’ve got to condense our defense and get more athletes on the field," Winter said. "This year we’re going to be more aggressive with movements and pressures. We don’t have true defensive lineman. We have athlete kids."

But aside from the tactical changes and the personnel decisions, Winter said the biggest change he’s seen is the players’ commitment to the strength and conditioning program he brought in last season. Players gained weight but saw 40-yard dash times go down. Winter said the weight room is now "state of the art."

"Even the D-I [coaches] who came in recruiting were like, ‘We don’t have this,’" Winter said. "Kids are putting in the effort."

They’ll need to in a region that includes three teams that made the state playoffs, including semifinalist George Walton Academy that returns star running back Stanley Williams and state runner-up Prince Avenue Christian that hired long-time Camden County coach Jeff Herron.

But Winter likes the direction Pinecrest is headed.

"The kids are bought into what we’re doing. We know the kids a lot better. We treat the kids with a lot of respect. We built their trust. We never talk to them about winning or losing a game. What we do talk about is we want to win a state title. In order to do that, you have to take care of the little things. And that’s the process."