Some Pisgah football fans said early on that this season may be lackluster compared to last year.
But midway through the 2019 campaign, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. While the Bears stumbled early in a tough season opening loss at defending 1A state champion Murphy, things have been on a continuous upswing since then.
“You want to look and see if your team is making progress and getting better, and I think we are,” said head coach Brett Chappell.
One of the players who has notably become more comfortable as the season has progressed is quarterback Korey Griffith, who now has the wherewithal to check down or throw the ball away at the right times but also the confidence to go deep when he finds the right mismatch.
“The more time you can get under a quarterback’s belt, the more experience he gets, the more confident he’ll be in himself and everyone around him,” Chappell said. “He’s progressed not only in the confidence in himself but in his confidence in his teammates.”
Some of Griffith’s weapons have made great strides. The plethora of speedy receivers who can catch tough passes while also picking up yards on the ground via jet sweeps have made the second-year starter’s job much easier.
One of the skill players who has shined is Cain Early, a wide receiver who stepped in to play running back when Levi Cagle was injured. Although Mountain Heritage held Early in the last game, he dominated both East Henderson and Tuscola.
“When we lost Levi, we weren’t sure what direction the team would go,” Chappell said. “That changes your mentality in what you can or can’t do. But that transition was probably as good as it could have gone.”
“We knew we had some good skill players on our team,” he added. “That just shows some of the versatility of our players that they can play other roles.”
On the defensive side, the most pleasant surprise has been the dominance of the front seven, and especially the line. After losing all four starters up front, not many expected to see that group continue to improve to the point that it dominated Mountain Heritage’s ground game, which usually moves the ball at will.
“With it being the biggest question mark coming in due to graduation, I think those guys played extremely well,” Chappell said, also noting that the group is able to rotate several players in due its tremendous depth.
But what is an improving offense and a consistent defense without solid special teams play? Chappell said he has been thrilled with special teams and especially punter Ryan Reynolds, who has consistently pinned opponents deep in their own territory.
“He’s been a weapon for us without a doubt,” Chappell said. “You even go back to the Murphy game. We pinned those guys down as well … He’s been somebody we can count on, and that’s not even talking about going out wide. He’s one of our best skill players on offense.”
Coming off their impressive four-game winning streak, the stakes for the Bears rise as they begin conference play this week at home against Smoky Mountain. Pisgah will enter the game after having a week off. Chappell said that while the week gave his players a great chance to rest and heal, he is also aware that players could lose an edge during the time off.
“I anticipate we’ll see some rust when we start conference play,” he said.
But Chappell is also excited to get down to it as the Bears are again shaping up to be a conference favorite.
“We feel good about our chances,” he said. “We’ve got some of our really big games at home.”
“That consistency we had in that last game will be a key to success in conference play,” he added. “We were consistent and didn’t hurt ourselves … But we’ll still add some wrinkles we haven’t shown yet.”
Some may have thought this season would be an off-year for Pisgah, but Chappell has watched the juniors and seniors he has now as they came up over the years and said he knew 2019 could be promising.
“You can kind of trace everything back once you get a group coming into JV as freshmen … these seniors have been good all the way through,” he said.
“We’ve seen this group and how good they’ve been,” he added. “And we very rarely have any problems we deal with in or out of the locker room.”
Either way, Pisgah is no longer an under-the-radar team this season. After beating Mountain Heritage, the Bears rose in the rankings to No. 15 in the Max Preps poll and No. 10 in the AP poll. But as he’s said in the past, Chappell doesn’t care much about rankings.
“You start looking at those things, and it becomes a distraction,” he said.
Chappell added that he hasn’t even heard any players mention anything about the rankings all season.
“Some teams get caught up in stuff like that, some teams get caught up in stats … and that’s not been the case with this bunch,” he said. “We’re more busy and concerned with getting our players to play.”