JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – The Mount Pisgah Patriots caught everyone – themselves included – by surprise, going 12-1 this season and reaching the semifinals of the state Class A private school playoffs.
That won’t happen next year.
The Patriots will return a majority of the front line players from this season’s team, which came excruciatingly close to a spot in this week’s state championship game.
Both games in the private school semifinals were decided by one point, with the two teams that were higher seeded with home field advantage losing.
Mount Pisgah, the No. 2 seed, lost 17-16 to No. 3 Aquinas, while No. 1 Eagle’s Landing Christian Academy was defeated 35-34 in overtime by No. 4 Calvary Day of Savannah.
The Patriots began the season with a new head coach, as defensive coordinator Mike Forester took over for Doug Dixon, who stepped down after last season went 6-4 before losing in the first rounds of the state playoffs to the No. 1 seed.
Mount Pisgah gave Athens Academy a scare in that game, a sign of things to come for the Patriots. Forester saw the signs, but even he was caught a bit off guard by the team’s success this season.
“I knew we had a good team, but I did not realize we were this good,” Forester said after last Friday night’s loss to Aquinas. “I would not have anticipated this when I stepped into the new job.”
This was the first head coaching job for Forester, a longtime assistant coach in Alabama who had been at Pisgah for only a year as an assistant.
But Forester, his coaching staff and players clicked, and the Patriots fell just short of reaching the championship game in just their second season in the GHSA playoffs.
The Patriots will graduate only seven front line senior players from this season’s 12-1 team, among them three defensive backs/receivers, three linemen and Browning Dunn, the team’s primary running back.
Mount Pisgah will be challenged to replace Jacob Delk, Ian Ainsworth and Patrick Messinger in the secondary, but will return almost their entire front seven on defense.
Among those returning are Shingi Chigwere, one of the state’s top defensive lineman in Class A, along with lineman Blake Smith and their entire group of linebackers led by Nicky Piccapietra and John O’Connor.
Offensively, the Patriots return standout quarterback Aaron Winchester, who passed for 2,270 yards and 31 touchdowns and rushed for 970 yards. Although the Patriots graduate three of their six primary receivers, one of whom was Dunn, they return their top two pass catchers (Ben Miller and Oz Dixon), along with tight end Tommy Pease.
Injuries forced freshman Jack Geier and sophomore Nick Bernier into starting roles as offensive lineman, and they return along with Chigwere and others who played up front.
“We’ve got some of our best players coming back, and some young guys who stepped in and played well,” Forester said. “I’m looking forward to next year.”
As much as Forester is anticipating the 2014 season, it will take a while for him, his coaches, players and the team’s fans to get over last week’s loss.
Mount Pisgah received no help from the weather, with the rainy conditions impacting the Patriots more than it did it the run-oriented offense of Aquinas. Because of the difficulty of gripping the football, the Patriots’ usually explosive aerial attack was grounded.
Although the conditions were less than ideal, the two teams gave the drenched fans a game to remember, with Aquinas scoring the winning touchdown inside the final 20 seconds after Mount Pisgah had taken the lead with a touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter.
“This was an amazing football game for the weather,” Forester said. “Both teams played hard and played well and were well-matched. Our kids came back and fought hard, and they did, too.
“When you think that you have the better team, but several mistakes cost you, those are the hardest and toughest losses to take,” he said.