When Luke Hyatt took over the Piedmont football program last January, the Panthers’ team, and the community, were still reeling from the sudden death of former coach Ron Massey.
Massey, 56, died of a heart attack on Oct. 11, just hours after coaching what would be his last game against Sun Valley. Ironically, the first game after Massey’s death was against Hyatt and his former team, Anson County.
Piedmont earned an emotional victory, 29-26, but would not win another game that season.
Piedmont senior linebacker, Kole VonEgidy, said the final four games of last season were “a surreal experience that made it difficult to concentrate on football.”
“We won’t ever forget Coach Massey and what he did for this program,” VonEgidy said, adding that most of the players wrote ‘Coach’ and ‘Massey’ on tape on their wrists, and the initials ‘RM’ on the back of their helmets.
“But last year was really tough on all of us. We were all ready to put last year in the past and move on to this year. We know that Coach Massey would want us to focus on playing football and so that is what we are doing.”
Hyatt has tried to help Piedmont team deal with their emotions.
“When I came to Piedmont, it was a very delicate situation,” Hyatt said. “I’ve never been through anything like this before, and certainly these kids had never been through this either.
“I told them from day one, ‘if you get nothing else from this season, I am going to love you. I’m going to love on you like my four sons (Luke, Dock, Brady and Jax).’ We’ve already become a very close team that cares a lot about each other. We are still working our way through this together. But I think everyone was excited to move forward.”
After going 4-7 last season, Piedmont is 4-1 this season.
The Panthers have done it with a power running game and an opportunistic defense that has forced 16 turnovers. The new double wing offense has produced 1,439 yards rushing (288 yards per game) and 15 touchdowns.
Piedmont senior running backs Khris Missick (660 yards rushing) and Jordan Deese (325 yards rushing), and sophomore Matt Price (301 yards rushing) have had a lot of room to run with a veteran offensive line plowing the way.
The Panther offensive line includes four seniors: center Trevor Hill, right tackle Dillon Chaney, right guard Brian Cardona and left tackle Ben Mosley. Juniors Tucker Mullis and Casey Rowell rotate at right guard.
Meanwhile, senior quarterback Hadden Gsell has done a great job running an offense with a lot of quick, moving parts.
The Panther defense (shifted from 4-4 to 4-3 alignment) is led by senior linebackers Garrett Hinson (48 tackles) and VonEgidy (37 tackles). The defense has forced eight fumbles and grabbed eight interceptions.
Hyatt also is quick to say his coaching staff, most of whom remained from Massey’s staff, have played a major role in the success. That group includes assistant head coach Jamie Belk (who served as interim head coach last season), offensive coordinator Mark Hoover and defensive coordinator Jason Phelix.
“I’ve leaned heavily on my assistants since the day I got here,” Hyatt said. “They knew all these kids, and they have all been through a lot together. So I knew they could help bring this team back together again.”
While Piedmont is focused on staying in the moment, the team won’t forget its past. Hyatt and his team are making plans to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Massey’s passing in the next few weeks.
“Our coaches and players tell Ron Massey stories every day, and I think we still learn from his memory all the time,” Hyatt said. “It’s a great honor for all of us to try to continue the legacy that he started at Piedmont. We are blessed to be a part of this program.”
The Piedmont players agree.
“We have so much to play for this season,” VonEgidy said. “We’re still playing for Coach Massey. We are playing for Coach Hyatt. We’re playing for the guy lined up beside you. We’re playing for everyone who has had an impact on this team. I think that is going to make us pretty hard to beat.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.