Mount Pleasant's transition from 2A to 3A has proven a challenge for its football team.
After going 3-8 in its first season in the South Piedmont Conference, the Tigers followed that up with an improved 5-8 record last season.
Coach Michael Johns hopes the third time's the charm.
Johns said being 2-2 to start off last year after facing a tough nonconference slate, he had high goals for the team. But once conference play began, the Tigers disappointed by losing five games in a row.
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"It was tough, but we stayed positive," said Johns, adding his Tigers were in every game except in a 41-21 loss to Concord.
Mount Pleasant closed out the regular season with two wins against Jay M. Robinson and Central Cabarrus to earn a spot in the 3A playoffs. The Tigers, sixth in the SPC, surprised higher-seeded Southern Guilford to reach the second round, where they finished their season with a loss to Eastern Alamance.
The team loses key players in twins Christian and Hunter Cannon, who led the team at middle linebacker and quarterback, respectively, as well as receivers Chett Currie and Jake Heintz. But Johns said he's excited about the core group of returners.
The Tigers lose three of their top five tacklers, but returns seniors Deon Pillsbury, a middle linebacker, and Dezmond Leach. Pillsbury is the leading returning tackler after recording 101 last season; Leach had 78.
"They are our two key defensive contributors," said Johns. "They have, of all our returning starters, the most experience having played every down on defense last year."
Johns said Mount Pleasant, forced to replace its entire secondary, will also implement a new scheme. With more linebackers and backs than linemen, the team will switch from a 5-2 to a 3-4 defense.
On offense, seniors Junior Gonzales and Ace Troutman return at running back after combining for 1,100 rushing yards last year.
With last year's offensive line graduating, part-time starting tackle Seth Spears's experience will be essential for the Tiger offense to run smoothly. Johns said although the line won't be as big as last year, this version should be quicker and even more athletic.
Junior Andy Hunt will be entrusted to fill the gap left by Currie and Heintz, who combined to catch for more than 1,200 yards last year.
Alan McDonald, mainly a receiver last year, will take over the quarterback duties. The junior saw time behind Hunter Cannon in four games last season, going 12-for-22 for 132 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.
Johns hopes to have a balanced attack again out of their spread, four-wide formation.
Johns said he's encouraged after the Tigers' JV program went 10-0 last season. He hopes those players moving up - who he said have experienced a lot of winning in the past two seasons - fill some key roles.
"We put a lot of emphasis on our JV program; we really stress fundamentals, so that gives us a good foundation for them to know what to expect when they're playing on Friday nights," said Johns.
Developing players that way, Johns said, his teams have traditionally developed good chemistry.
"As long as we can gel together as a team, everything else should take care of itself," said Johns.
Mount Pleasant hopes this team will be able to get back to the playoffs and contend for an SPC title.
"Obviously our conference is tough and you have to have some breaks along the way to win it," he said. "But we definitely want to finish as close to the top of the conference as possible."