Panthers confident heading into 3A league
Conditioning is the most dreaded part of playing football, but Piedmont High can look back at last season for inspiration.
The Panthers were 0-3 in games decided by eight points or less in 2012 and finished with a 5-7 record.
If they could have pulled out wins in close games against Cuthbertson (38-32) and Monroe (28-20), Piedmont would have been co-champions of the Rocky River Conference.
Senior running back Matt Lucas said the close losses still haunt him.
"It makes it even harder that those were rivalry games," Fisher said. "That's the main thing coach (Ron Massey) stresses is to finish. We were tied or winning at halftime of those games. The fourth quarter is the most important quarter. We want to finish games better than we did last year."
Piedmont's top target in the passing game, senior receiver Tyler Ivey, considers the close losses a learning experience. "We should have closed those games out when we had the chance," he said. "We'll have more courage in those situations this year."
Massey, entering his second year at Piedmont, had successful runs at A.L. Brown and Kings Mountain.
His 210 career wins rank second among active Union County coaches behind Forest Hills' John Lowery (246).
"This year we know what we're doing and we're running the plays more crisp," Fisher said. "Mainly because we rep the plays over and over again until we perfect it."
The Panthers have reached double-digit wins just three times in their 53-year history — all in the past 11 years — and each of those teams tended to dominate the line of scrimmage.
Most recently, Piedmont's 2010 team went unbeaten in the Rocky River Conference and finished 11-2 with a senior-dominated offensive front.
Piedmont's 2013 team returns four offensive linemen with starting experience, and project four senior starters.
On the right side, guard Ethan Pierson (5-11, 235) and tackle Cale Helms (5-11, 250) are third-year starters.
Pierson was encouraged after the Panthers had a good showing last Saturday in a scrimmage at Wingate against 4A Myers Park and defending 2A state champion East Lincoln.
"The scrimmage was good for our confidence," Pierson said. "It gives us something to build on. I thought we looked good on offense and defense."
Five football programs in Union County are under first-year coaches, and that always involves a learning curve.
"Last year we were adjusting to a new system," Pierson said. "We have the plays down now and we're more used to each other."
Piedmont returns 14 starters, including eight on defense.
The Panthers look more decisive running Massey's triple-gun offense this preseason.
"We know what to expect from him now," said Ivey, who caught a team-high seven touchdown passes last season. "And we know what he wants from us."
The Panthers lost starting QB Sawyer Baucom to graduation, but junior QB Cameron Tripp played significantly off the bench last season.
Tripp is a striking presence in the pocket at 6-7 and 200 pounds, and also shows good feet in the option game.
"Cameron's a great quarterback," Ivey said. "He throws a really nice deep ball. His height is definitely an advantage. He can see over anybody."
Matt Fisher, who rushed for six TDs in 2012, replaces leading rusher Brandon Gentry as the feature back.
Fisher will line up in the slot opposite senior Tyler Long, who has battled a knee injury in the preseason.
Junior Aaron Braswell is the starting fullback and will share the position with Cameron Price — both are starting safeties on defense.
Senior Colton Greene is also expected to start both ways, at receiver and cornerback.
Vassar Strickland returns at center and Carlos Sandovol will play left tackle. Dillon Chaney, a sophomore playing left guard, missed last season with a torn ACL.
"I know how to read our line very well because I've been playing with most of those guys since middle school," Fisher said. "Cameron throws the deep ball well so that will keep the safeties honest. Cameron's our leader this year. He's doing awesome."
The Panthers have some depth at receiver. In addition to Ivey and Greene, Josh Collura and Mitchell Woody caught long touchdown passes in the scrimmage and Devin Thomas is also expected to be a factor.
Ivey sprained an ankle in the scrimmage. He's expected to miss Friday's scrimmage at Northwest Cabarrus but plans to play when Piedmont opens the season at Hickory Ridge on Aug. 23.
The Panthers return all but three starters from a defense that allowed 25.4 points per game and held four opponents to 14 points or less.
Braswell is moving from linebacker to strong safety to replace last year's leading tackler, Hunter Purser.
Senior linebacker Lucas Smith had a team-high seven sacks in 2012.
Junior Rhett Byrum has moved from the secondary to outside linebacker this season.
Smith and Byrum are both starters on the wrestling team, and neither shies away from contact.
"Lucas is definitely our most aggressive player," Fisher said. "Rhett has put on weight and he's playing down hill this year, too."
Piedmont runs a 3-4 defense, and two of the three starters on the D-line are back — senior end Jaden Funderburk and senior nose guard Kris Rookard. Senior Colby Price is the starter on the other end.
Barring injury, the Panthers will have enough depth in the trenches to two-platoon.
"We have a rotation on both sides," Pierson said. "We'll back up the defensive linemen and they'll back us up."
Woody is a returning starter at cornerback, and Price is the free safety.
Piedmont's starting defense kept 4A Myers Park out of the end zone in the scrimmage at Wingate.
The Panthers are challenged with moving up from the Rocky River 2A to Southern Carolina 3A this season.
"We know the competition will be bigger this year," Pierson said. "But we feel pretty good about it. We have to concentrate on us and what we can do and not worry about what others can do."
Fisher finds the preseason predictions motivating: "We're picked to finish last in the conference so we can only go up from there."
Piedmont Panthers Projected Starters
Piedmont's 2013 schedule
Aug. 23^at Hickory Ridge
Aug. 30^Porter Ridge
Sept. 13^Forest Hills
Sept. 27^at CATA
Oct. 4^West Stanly
Oct.11^at Sun Valley
Oct. 18^at Anson
Oct. 25^Marvin Ridge
Nov. 8^at Cuthbertson
Piedmont''s 2012 results
Hickory Ridge 23, Piedmont 17
Porter Ridge 58, Piedmont 7
Piedmont 35, Robinson 14
Cox Mill 54, Piedmont 21
Monroe 28, Piedmont 20
Piedmont 31, West Stanly 3
Forest Hills 32, Piedmont 20
Piedmont 42, CATA 6
Piedmont 40, North Stanly 3
Piedmont 49, U. Academy 18
Cuthbertson 38, Piedmont 32
N.C. 2AA playoffs
TW Andrews 28, Piedmont 14