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MP coach wants faster start against Spring Hill

MOUNTAIN PINE -- Riding a five-game winning streak, Mountain Pine has gone from a perennial cellar-dweller to a legitimate 2A-7 contender under second-year coach Sam Counce.

Erasing a halftime deficit for the second game in a row, the Red Devils surged past Murfreesboro 61-40 last week to improve to 5-1 overall and 3-0 in conference before Friday's matchup with visiting Spring Hill at Stanley May Field.

"I think the last two weeks, we could've been in a trap a little bit and we were fortunate to come out of it," Counce said. "Any time you get a chance to do that it does make you better, but on the other hand, I'd like to see our guys come through and not fall behind. In that aspect, we have to get better to come out ready to go."

Quarterback Collin Smith continues to progress in his first varsity season. The sophomore completed five of seven passes for 101 yards last week, adding a team-high 200 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

"Collin pressed a little bit early and now he's letting it come to him more," said Counce. "He's understanding the speed of the senior-high game. Early in the year, we could see that he was just nervous; now he's a little more relaxed and he's more conversational with the coaches about what's going on."

Along with Elijah Browning and Fay Haywood, Smith's running ability gives Mountain Pine a potent backfield that averages just under 300 rushing yards per game. The trio split the load against Murfreesboro, Haywood finishing with 136 yards and Browning with 82 yards.

Chad Graves added 28 yards and one touchdowns on three attempts as the Red Devils totaled 446 yards, averaging 10 per carry.

"Nobody can hang their hat on defense against us; they've got to keep an eye on everybody," Counce said. "Chad Graves has come a long way these last few games. We've tried to make sure everybody is involved so everybody gets a taste of what's going on. Game-time experience is the best experience, and letting these guys see what's coming to them is very important for our offense."

While the offense continues to shine with an average of 49 points in the last four games, the defense has surrendered more points in the last two weeks (78) than the previous four (73) combined.

Taking nothing away from their opponent, Counce believes the Red Devils could be in line for a bounce-back performance against a Spring Hill offense that's been shut out twice and averages just 14 points per game.

"We've changed up a few things this week and we're going to do a few things differently," he said. "We're going to try to cause a few more problems for the offense and not just sit there and get blown off the ball every time."

Spring Hill quarterback Payton Massanelli has completed 33 of 86 passes for 513 yards and three touchdowns, Drake Kidd his leading receiver with eight catches for 185 yards and two scores.

Led by junior Keymonte Rhodes with 449 yards on 68 carries, the Bears average 135 yards per game on the ground. The Red Devils know Spring Hill (2-4, 1-2) will be eager to get back in the playoff picture after a 57-7 loss against Mount Ida last week.

"On our home field, we've got to come out and get on these guys quick," said Counce. "They've got a quarterback and a running back that are both pretty good and we've got to contain those guys. If we do that, we'll be OK; if we let them run wild like we have the last couple weeks, we'll struggle."

As Mountain Pine marches toward its first playoff appearance since 2010, it's easy to look down the road at a Week 9 matchup with defending Class 2A champion Mount Ida that could have conference-title implications.

Despite the allure of what lies ahead, Counce has been preaching the importance of staying focused on the task at hand.

"I'm sure some of the kids are looking out of the corner of their eye, but we try to maintain the mental aspect of just coming to work every day," he said. "It's hard to do, but that's the approach we take. Friday night is a business assignment; we'll try to get it done and whoever's next is next."

Sports on 10/12/2017

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