By Carey Phillips
Smoky Mountain will open the state 2-AA football playoffs at home Friday against South Point.
Kickoff time is 7:30 p.m. at Carr Hooper Stadium/Babe Howell Field.
The Mustangs (8-3) are the fourth seed in the West. The Red Raiders (5-6) are the 13th seed.
If SM wins, the second round game would be at home next week against fifth-seeded Ashe County or 12th-seeded West Lincoln.
The Mustangs will be at home for a playoff game for the first time since 2011, which is also the last year they won a postseason game.
SM Coach Ricky Brindley remembers a trip to Belmont to play the Raiders three years ago when he was an assistant at Pisgah. South Point won 42-0.
“They are every bit as good as I remember them being,” he said. “Their record does not show it, but they have been beaten by some incredible football teams. Three of them have a chance to win a state championship in North Carolina and one in South Carolina.”
Those losses were to fellow Southwestern Conference members Shelby (49-21) and Burns (30-28) along with Crest (13-7) and Clover, South Carolina (34-7). Other losses were to Forestview (41-21) and Chase (41-28).
The Raiders have wins over Lincolnton (14-0), Cramer (35-0), Est Gaston (54-6), East Rutherford (42-14) and R-S Central (29-22).
“They have some really good athletes,” Brindley said. “That will make it extremely difficult for us to slow them down.”
Ray Rose, a North Carolina commit, is a wide receiver, but also may carry the ball. Brindley called him “lightning in a bottle.”
Quarterback Will Rhinehart doesn’t pass much, but he can be effective.
“He doesn’t throw it great, but there are times when he will throw it up and one of their really good athletes have been able to go get it,” Brindley said.
Naseem Jones is the top rusher for Coach Adam Hodge’s team.
“He’s hard nosed but extremely electric,” Brindley said. “When he gets in the open field, he can go to the house.”
Defensive tackle Xarique Culbreth is a leader of the 4-3 defense.
“He make plays a lot of times purely on effort,” Brindley said.
“They are a double wing triple option team,” he said. “They have been doing it for as long as probably anybody can remember. They are very sound at what they do. When people watch them come off the ball at the line of scrimmage Friday night, they are going to see something they’ve never seen before.
“The key for us is to have long sustained drives,” he said. “We’ve got to keep the ball away from them.”
Brindley said he felt the experience gained last season in a 42-6 playoff loss at North Lincoln could pay dividends this year.
“We ran into a buzz saw,” he said. “I don’t think anybody realized how good they were. This year we’ve got a little experience. Hopefully our kids can stayed focused and not be looking ahead.”
Friday’s 42-6 win over Franklin along with Pisgah’s 12-7 victory over Brevard left SM, Pisgah and Brevard tied for the Mountain Six Conference championship. It’s the Mustangs’ first league title since 1992.
“That has got to mean a lot to the program,” said Brindley, who is in his second season as coach. “My goal when I came here was to be able to compete on a yearly basis for a conference championship. That’s something that hasn’t been done in a long time, at least consistently. It took a little bit of luck, but we were able to share it this year.”
It was also the first time SM defeated the Panthers in consecutive seasons since 1992.
“Anytime you can beat them you’re very excited for your community and your kids, Brindley said. “The fact that we have been able to do it two years in a row speaks volumes about the kids and what we are trying to do. It means something to beat a team that you haven’t had a lot of success against in school history.”
Brindley was pleased with his team’s defense against Franklin.
“We did a really good job defensively controlling the line of scrimmage,” he said. “We play a three-one box. Our three defensive interior linemen played their tails off. He said they were Clayton Frady and Parker Flynn with Colin Crowe and Lawson Wike alternating at the third position.
The coach had high praise for Damon Figueroa.
“The most underrated and overlooked player on our defense is Damon Figueroa,” he said. “I don’t know if people realize how difficult it is to be the only linebacker in the box with three linemen in front of you. He’s our quarterback on defense. He’s an incredible young man who has been able to deal with a lot of people in his face every game.”
Brindley also singled out defensive back Rocky Magestro.
“Rocky played very well,” he said. “I was extremely pleased with how he played on the perimeter. He had an interception and some really key tackles.”
Offensively, the Mustangs had 386 yards rushing. Dustin Stephens had 196, and Will Frady finished with 172.
“You’ve got to look at the eight who do all the blocking,” Brindley said. “That includes the tight end and wide receiver. It’s incredible to watch them perform to create things for Dustin and Will. I include wide receiver Darien Bird in there because he’s as good as anybody when it comes to blocking.
“Will and Dustin have been our workhorses,” he added. “They’ve probably got 90 percent of our offense this year, and I’m OK with that.”