JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – When first-year Mount Pisgah head football coach Mike Forester took a look at his team’s 2013 schedule, he was thinking an 8-2 record would be a good mark to shoot at.
The Patriots were playing the same schedule as in 2012, when they went 6-5. And of the nine opponents on both schedules, three of them manhandled Mount Pisgah by three or four touchdowns. What a difference a year makes.
The Patriots faced their first serious roadblock early in the season when Mount Pisgah fell behind 16-0 at the half in the third game of the season against Our Lady of Mercy.
“Here we go again,” Forester thought.
But the Patriots rallied in spectacular fashion to win 17-16 on a last-second field goal, and things took off from there.
The team reeled off seven more victories, and Mount Pisgah closed out the 2013 schedule with a 10-0 record, sending the Patriots into the Class A private school playoffs as the second-ranked team among the 16 playing for a state title.
“I was thinking 8-2, not 10-0,” Forester said during the Patriots’ off week between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs.
Mount Pisgah opens the postseason Friday night at home against Pacelli of Columbus, which went 6-4 to capture a rare state playoff berth.
A victory will send the Patriots into the second round, again at home, against the Holy Innocents-Landmark Christian winner.
It’s unlikely the Patriots will be looking past their opening opponent, as they only have to take a look back at their own playoff situation last year. Mount Pisgah barely qualified for the playoffs as the 16th team in a 16-team draw, and nearly knocked off No. 1 Athens Academy in the first round.
That performance helped spur the Patriots to its 10-0 record in 2013, with Mount Pisgah having to overcome the loss of two key linemen midway through the season.
At the Class A level, most top players have to play extensively on both offense and defense, so the loss of your best lineman for disciplinary reasons and the team’s defensive ace can be a mortal blow.
But the Patriots have survived a knee injury to junior Shingi Chigwere.
“He’s as good a defensive lineman as there is in 1-A football. That’s a huge missing piece [to lose],” said Forester.
Both Chigwere and the other missing lineman started on offense, which forced the Patriots to adjust their offensive approach, but hasn’t noticeably affected the team’s production.
Mount Pisgah put up some big numbers in just about every game, led by standout junior quarterback Aaron Winchester and a large cast of players who have shared the rushing and receiving duties.
Winchester has completed 117 of 215 passes for 1,803 yards and 24 touchdowns, and also leads the team in rushing with 85 carries for 664 yards.
“Aaron has had an incredible year,” Forester said. “He’s the prototypical Russell Wilson-type player. He can hurt with his arm and his legs. He’s an outstanding runner with great speed and can sit back in the pocket and throw it. He makes it hard for defenses.”
The Patriots are a pass first, run second offense, with three players splitting the rushing duties and three others helping share the receiving load.
Senior Browning Dunn and juniors Oz Dixon and Ben Miller have combined for 830 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground, and are also the most productive receivers, with 62 catches for 1,185 yards and 17 TDs.
Seniors Tommy Pease, Patrick Messinger and Ian Ainsworth have 10 TDs and 600 receiving yards among them, making it impossible for defenses to key on any one player.
The Patriots average around 195 yards per game passing and 175 rushing despite some major changes in the line.
Sophomore Nick Bernier and freshman Jack Geier have helped pick up the slack up front despite their youth. Forester also made some offensive adjustments “so we don’t put them in impossible situations.”
Defensively, sophomore Garrett Brasher and freshman Noah West “have stepped up,” Forester said.
Junior Blake Smith moved from nose guard to tackle in place of Chigwere and has turned in “an outstanding season,” according to his coach.
The Patriots have been able to compensate for the defensive losses up front with some strong play from the linebackers and defensive backfield, even though there have also been some occasional position changes in both areas.
Junior Nicky Piccapietra has helped key the defense at linebacker, along with fellow junior John O’Connor and sophomore J.R. Cendoya.
Senior safety Jacob Delk is leading the team with six interceptions.
“He’s an amazing player,” Forester said. “Jacob seems to be where the ball is all the time,”
Messinger, Dixon and Ainsworth round out the secondary.
One concern for Forester going into the playoffs is his team’s relatively weak schedule, which included only one game in the latter stages of the season against an opponent with a winning record.
The Patriots’ other close call this season was a 28-24 win over Mount Paran, which finished the season third in the Class A private school ranking and is the No. 6 playoff seed.
“That’s a little bit of a concern,” Forester said. “Pacelli has been in four tough games and they’ve played three top 10 teams. We haven’t been challenged like they have.”
The Patriots needed late rallies to win both their closely contested games, scoring two touchdowns in the last five minutes against Mount Paran.
Pacelli, which went 6-4 and tied for fourth in its region, is similar in style to Mount Pisgah, Forester said. But in the end, it matters little who the Patriots open with.
“There are no weak teams left. We’re down to 16 teams,” the coach said.
This has been an extremely successful first season as a head coach for Forester, who was a defensive coordinator for more than 20 years in Alabama before joining the Pisgah coaching staff in that capacity last year.
When Doug Dixon stepped down after the 2012 season, Forester was named head coach, to which he admits he never aspired. But he has excelled at it in his first season.
Mt. Pisgah has gone undefeated this season
Mt. Pisgah 48, Mt. Vernon 14
Mt. Pisgah 29, Model 10
Mt. Pisgah 17, Our Lady of Mercy 16
Mt. Pisgah 26, Wilson (Ala.) 7
Mt. Pisgah 47, Walker 0
Mt. Pisgah 14, King’s Ridge 6
Mt. Pisgah 39, Whitefield Academy 7
Mt. Pisgah 28, Mount Paran 24
Mt. Pisgah 50, Fellowship Christian 14
Mt. Pisgah 41, Mount Zion (Carrollton) 26