Two weeks ago, Pinecrest Academy came away with one of the biggest wins in school history when it dethroned top-ranked Mount Paran in the regular season finale. With so much energy and passion expended in the historic win, the Paladins’ top priority was to avoid the “next game letdown.”
Although Athens Christian kept the Paladins’ offense in check early, Pinecrest’s defense and special teams more than compensated in a hard-earned 20-7 victory Friday at home in the first round of the Class A-Private playoffs.
Pinecrest (10-1) will face Stratford Academy, a 14-7 winner against Calvary Day, at home Friday in the second round.
After spending the first two quarters chasing a 7-0 lead by Athens Christian, the game turned completely to the Paladins’ favor in the third quarter after senior quarterback Ryan McCarthy fielded a punt at midfield and began weaving his way downfield. McCarthy turned on the jets as he hit the sideline and headed straight for the pylon, capping off a 54-yard punt return touchdown and swinging the momentum solely to the Paladins.
“At first, I think we were a little timid,” McCarthy said. “We just needed a little spark, and once we got it, we really took off. We’ve been down before, we just made some adjustments (at half) and came out ready to play.”
McCarthy did a little bit of everything for his team, playing a vital role in all three phases of the game for Pinecrest. The senior quarterback accounted for three total touchdowns, a handful of tackles, a sack, and the game clinching interception.
“He’s a great athlete, which is (necessary) for our quarterback position,” Pinecrest head coach Todd Winter said. “He’s got good hands, great feet, great instincts, and he’s very aware on the field. Not kneeling down after the interception is about the only thing he could have corrected in this game.”
After the McCarthy punt return, the Paladin defense stepped up and made its mark on the game. Team captain Mitchell Ojeda intercepted an errant pass and made it all the way inside the 5-yard line. On the next play, McCarthy plunged into the end zone on 4-yard dive, giving the Paladins a 14-7 lead that they would not relinquish.
The Golden Eagles began the game in great form, taking the opening possession down the field and finishing the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run by AJ Rowe, giving the underdogs a quick 7-0 edge midway through the first. But the Paladins pitched a shutout the rest of the way, holding Athens Christian scoreless for the remaining 41:34 of the game.
After several frustrating possessions, Pinecrest tried a little trickery in the second quarter and attempted a double pass deep inside their own territory. But the play backfired as the deep ball thrown by Jake Mangan was intercepted downfield and returned to the Paladins 40-yard line.
Moments later, Mangan redeemed himself on defense when he stormed through the right side of the Golden Eagles line and wrestled quarterback Cody Atkinson to the ground for a sack. Buoyed by that play, the Paladins’ defense forced Athens Christian to attempt a 27-yard field goal with only seconds left in the second quarter. The kick sailed wide right as time expired, keeping Pinecrest within a single possession.
Despite having a tough day at the office, the Paladins’ offense came up clutch down the stretch. The team was 3-for-4 on third down conversions in the fourth, including a miraculous 40-yard jump ball touchdown on 3rd-and-24 that was hauled in by junior receiver Corey Downes in the front of the end zone, making the score 20-6 with 1:41.
Just to add an exclamation point to his already stellar day, McCarthy came down with the game ending interception in the final moments to secure the win.
Although it was a far from perfect performance, Winters cites that his squad executed the fundamentals that often separates teams in the postseason.
“I’ve been a part of some good teams that have made some great playoff runs,” Winters said. “In November, it all comes down to two things: you have to play great defense and you have to run the ball. We were able to do those things, and that’s why we get to play football next week.”