By Carey Phillips
Smoky Mountain’s football season ended earlier than Coach Ricky Brindley wanted with a 37-34 loss to Hickory in the first round of the state 3-A playoffs Friday.
“We played pretty well on offense,” he said. “We moved the ball well and dominated the line of scrimmage. That gave us a chance to win in the fourth quarter. I’m very disappointed that we didn’t come out on top.”
Hickory, which was known for its passing attack, finished with 166 yards through the air and 163 on the ground. The Tornadoes gained yardage several times on key running plays.
“They were able to handle our box based on the threat we felt there was on the perimeter,” the coach said. “We were hoping we would be better than they were tackle to tackle. They did a god job. You’ve got to give them some credit.”
The Mustangs missed a chance to score in the first quarter when a potential touchdown pass was dropped, and they ended up not scoring on the possession.
“Anytime you get the ball in the red zone and aren’t able to come away with points it’s frustrating, especially against an offense as explosive as they can be,” Brindley said.
Isaiah McNeely set a school record with 45 carries and rushed for 328 yards. He finished the year with school records of 2,086 rushing yards and 31 rushing TD.
“Isaiah did what he’s done all year,” Brindley said. “He put us on his back at times and got tough yards.”
The Mustangs ended the year 7-3 for the program’s best winning percentage since the 1992 team went 9-3.
“I was very pleased with the progress our team made,” the coach said. “I felt the way they responded coming off a short off season that they were committed and focused on having a good, solid year.”
He said the team had good senior leadership.
“Darien Bird, Britt Burch, Colin Crowe, Brylen Conlin and Max Buchanan really did a good job providing us with senior leadership,” Brindley said. “Those kids were very committed in the off season and throughout the summer.
“Individually, we had some really good performances,” he said. “A lot of it can very easily be attributed to other portions of the offense, such as Isaiah to the offensive line. His performance at such a young age is very encouraging for the future.”
McNeely is a sophomore, as is quarterback Jed West.
“Jed West as a sophomore quarterback with very little football experience really handled the situation very well,” Brindley said.
“Britt Burch and the entire offensive line dominated a lot of games,” he said, while noting four of the five interior linemen will return next season. The coach said Darien Bird, who caught 67 passes for 810 yards, will be extremely difficult to replace as a wide receiver, but he feels there are options coming back that will give West targets next year.