CUMMING — In its first game as a member of the Georgia High School Association, the Pinecrest Academy Paladins played well enough defensively to walk off the field as victors.
But the offensive execution just wasn’t there, and a stellar defensive showing wasn’t enough to keep Riverside Military Academy from spoiling the Paladins’ GHSA debut.
Riverside freshman Justin Martin rushed for 108 yards as the Eagles outlasted a 45-minute lightning delay at the start and a gutsy Pinecrest defense, taking a 7-3 victory Friday night in a soggy season opener for both teams at Pinecrest.
“We just could not run our offense,” Pinecrest coach Charles Wiggins said. “We’re going to get better.”
The Paladins finished with just 90 yards of total offense. Still, Pinecrest (0-1) had a chance midway through the fourth quarter to push ahead.
With the Paladins trailing 7-3, junior quarterback Eric Hegeman found senior wide receiver Joe Neiner on a 37-yard pass play down the left sideline, Neiner reaching the Riverside 16 with 7:20 to go.
But the drive stalled out, and the Paladins missed a 45-yard field goal with 5:18 to go.
Pinecrest, which went 11-2 and reached the Georgia Independent Schools Association semifinals last season, came into the game with four new starters on the offensive line. Despite the struggles on offense, the Paladins’ defense kept the game close.
“Our defense kept us in the game, but I’m never satisfied with a loss,” Wiggins said.
Pinecrest jumped in front in the first quarter. A Riverside facemask penalty on the opening play of Pinecrest’s second possession moved the Paladins to the Eagles’ 21-yard-line.
The Eagles (1-0) held firm from there, but Pinecrest senior Ricardo Garcia booted a 33-yard field goal to stake the Paladins to a 3-0 lead with 4:44 left in the first quarter.
The Riverside defense then took control. With the exception of Neiner’s long reception in the fourth quarter, the Eagles held Pinecrest to just 8 yards total offense in the second half.
“I’m so proud of our defense,” Riverside coach Chris Cotter said. “They were outstanding.”
Martin was pretty good, too, finishing with 28 carries on offense and a full night’s work at cornerback, too.
“He’s tired, but I’m really proud of the effort he gave us,” Cotter said.
It looked like Martin had given the Eagles the lead midway through the second quarter. Facing fourth-and-1 from the Pinecrest 3, Martin bounced off the line and lunged for the end zone.
But the ball squirted loose just as Martin reached the goal line. Pinecrest fell on the loose ball in the end zone to end the threat with 7:31 left in the opening half.
It only temporarily kept the Eagles from taking the lead. Riverside marched 39 yards on seven plays on its next possession. Martin gained 21 yards on four carries on the drive, and freshman quarterback Michael Gallup finished things off with a 14-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Billy McCoy in the corner of the end zone. Gallup passed for 27 yards and rushed for 24 yards for the Eagles.
Junior Victor Salcido nailed the extra point, making it 7-3 Riverside with 2:09 left before halftime.
Hegeman finished 6-for-16 passing for 57 yards. Neiner caught four passes for 47 yards.
But while the Eagles moved the ball in the second half, the Pinecrest defense kept them off the scoreboard.
“We gave up an easy touchdown we shouldn’t have given up,” Wiggins said. “Overall, we played well enough to win.”
Riverside visits Lumpkin County at 7:30 p.m. Friday.