When the coaches from the Patriot Athletic Conference and the media who cover the league were asked to predict the order of finish in football for 2018, the three schools that drew most of the attention were defending champion Terry Sanford, former champion Cape Fear and a strong South View team.
Pine Forest was ranked fifth by the media and sixth by the coaches. Did that bother veteran Trojan head coach Bill Sochovka? No.
“I liked the fact we were under the radar,’’ Sochovka said. “I had my whole defense coming back. A lot of these kids on defense had started since the ninth grade.’’
At the end of the regular season, Pine Forest held seven opponents under 20 points and only allowed three to score more than 28 or more en route to a 9-2 record and the school’s first outright conference title in football since 1999.
The Trojans earned a first-round bye and the No. 3 seed in the 4-A East bracket of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoffs. They face Apex Middle Creek in the second round on Friday, Nov. 23, at Pine Forest.
Middle Creek, 8-4 and the No. 6 seed, beat Knightdale 23-17 in the first round. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m.
Where his team was picked to finish the season turned out to be the least of Sochovka’s concerns after the challenging year Pine Forest and all the teams in Cumberland County faced.
The county had to endure not one but two hurricanes during the season that disrupted schedules and twice forced Pine Forest to play two games in a single week. One of those times was the final week of the season when Pine Forest took on Overhills on a Monday and wrapped up the week in what turned out to be the conference title game with a high-scoring South View team.
“We knew they were probably going to score some points,’’ said Trojan linebacker Bernard Flerlage. “The only concern we had was everybody staying together as a team, playing hard and making sure we didn’t fall apart.’’
The Trojan defensive backs, especially Jordan Gladney, Le’Vonte McLean, Richard McEachern and Jaden Jones, combined to hold South View Shrine Bowl selection Emery Simmons to one touchdown reception in Pine Forest’s 14-7 win.
“We trusted our defensive backs,’’ Flerlage said. Fullback and defensive lineman Malik Daniels felt the win sent a message for this year and years to come for the Pine Forest program.
“We changed the culture,’’ he said. “Nobody thought of us going to the conference championship. Nobody gave us our respect. Nobody pictured us being there.
“We set the tone for the younger guys coming up, and we set the tone for the postseason. It was an important win for us.’’
The state playoffs are pretty much uncharted territory for most of the players on this Pine Forest team. In recent years when Pine Forest has made it to the postseason, the journey hasn’t lasted long. They’ve normally been eliminated in their first game, rarely making it to the second round.
To find a Pine Forest team making it all the way to a third-round game, you have to go back to 2003 when the Trojans beat Raleigh Millbrook and Raleigh Broughton in the first two games before falling to Southeast Raleigh in the third round.
This year, thanks to the bye, they’re guaranteed at least a trip to the second round, and since the NCHSAA moved the playoffs back a week because of the two hurricanes, they’ll get the rare privilege of practicing on Thanksgiving, which is traditionally the sign that a high school football team has enjoyed a good season.
Sochovka appreciates all these achievements and precedents, but his main concern is keeping the team focused on the task at hand, and he actually thinks the messy schedule during the regular season will make that an easier job.
During the season, Pine Forest wound up playing a game on every night of the week but Wednesday and Sunday. Despite all those disruptions, the players stayed focused enough to win the conference title.
Sochovka thinks the team will have no trouble adjusting to the three-day practice schedule of last week’s bye week before getting back into a regular grind preparing for the second-round game this week.
Neither does Flerlage. “We’re going to use this to our advantage,’’ he said. “We’ll review stuff and fix what we need to fix, make sure we are ready to prep ourselves for whoever we have coming this week.’’
Daniels said Sochovka will have the Trojans ready for Friday night, bye or no bye. “I believe the whole coaching staff will keep us sharp,’’ he said. “We want to go far in these playoffs. We want to make it to states. That’s our main goal.’’
Photo: Bernard Flerlage