In their two playoff wins, Strong has gotten out of the gates quickly, and they used that same formula to top Mountain Pine back in October.
With the Bulldogs and Red Devils set to collide for the 2A 8-Man state crown tonight in Little Rock, both coaching staffs have spent plenty of time dissecting film looking for any advantage they may gain in the rematch.
Heading into their first meeting, the Bulldogs had ample time to prepare having been idle since knocking off Brinkley two weeks prior to their first showdown with the Red Devils.
The Red Devils entered off of a 62-56 win over Spring Hill in their first encounter since they played for the eight-man state title in 2020.
The first game was certainly a litmus test for the Bulldogs, who were 4-0 at the time, but were starting a four-game stretch to close the regular season with Mountain Pine, Woodlawn and Spring Hill in successive weeks.
The Bulldogs quickly put the Red Devils in a sizable deficit, taking a 24-6 lead at the end of the first quarter before their lead grew to 38-12 at halftime en route to winning 48-30.
“We prepped pretty good,” Strong coach Sirl Wright said. “The kids responded. They were energized. They jumped on them. It was kind of seesaw at the beginning, but once they made a mistake, we exploited them and got the momentum. Just like a true champion, they didn’t stay down, they stood up and fought. The bottom line is when you get them down, you can’t let them get up because they’re coming back swinging.”
Strong’s three-headed monster of LaQuincy Shelton, Treveon Daniels and Byron Maze delivered in the first meeting.
Shelton went 8-of-13 passing for 109 yards with three touchdown passes to Maze in the win.
A junior, Shelton added 52 yards rushing, including a 1-yard touchdown run, on 24 carries. He was also successful on four two-point conversions.
Daniels had 123 yards rushing on 24 carries with a 10-yard touchdown run.
Maze made his presence felt on both sides of the ball.
He finished with seven catches for 107 yards with his aforementioned three scores.
On defense, he returned an interception 45 yards for a score while finishing with 12 tackles, including 10 solo stops with four going for a loss.
For added measure, he had a sack, forced two fumbles and recovered one fumble.
Turnovers have been rare for the Red Devils.
Quarterback Jonah Wilburn has thrown only three interceptions all year, and Mountain Pine as a team has lost four fumbles all season, but the Bulldogs turned one interception into a pick-six while recovering two fumbles in the first meeting. The Bulldogs’ defense also recorded a safety in the fourth quarter thanks to Jayme Correa.
“Turnovers are always a big bonus for whoever gains that turnover,” Wright said. “We don’t live and die by turnovers, but it makes our job that much easier. Dealing with Mountain Pine, if you can make them do those turnovers, it makes it much more easier to predict what they’re going to do and move forward with your game plan.
“If you do lose the turnover battle, then you get out of your game plan trying to adapt and adjust to different things they may do and they’re more comfortable to attack you and stay with their game plan. It’s a game-plan changer. The more turnovers you have, you stick with your game plan and you don’t have to do much, just execute. When you’re on the opposite end, it makes you change the game plan and can your kids adjust to the adjustments that you make.”
Mountain Pine coach Sam Counce said his team didn’t handle the lengthy trip to Strong well.
“It was a long trip and we just didn’t prepare very good,” Counce said. “We got off the bus and we had a little bit of a rain delay and some things like that went on. Our focus just wasn’t there. Strong came out and brought it to us and punched us in the mouth and we took it. It was a long night for us for sure.”
Strong’s defense turned in a sterling performance, limiting the Red Devils to just 107 yards rushing, their lowest total of the season by 93 yards.
Isaiah Miles was held to minus-3 yards rushing on five carries, although he caught a 30-yard touchdown pass.
Keelan Dobbins accounted for much of the Red Devils’ offense, accounting for 237 yards rushing and receiving with three touchdowns.
In addition to Shelton’s four two-point conversions, Strong’s special teams didn’t give the Red Devils any extra opportunities.
“We did pretty well,” Wright said. “I don’t think of any exploitation as far as what they did. There were a few times where they kicked it into spaces where we weren’t and they tackled us close to where we got the ball. We couldn’t get a good return on it, but like I tell the kids, you can’t trust a football. It’s not round, so it’s not going to be predictable. Once it hits the ground, if it hits the nose or the side or any portion of it, it could bounce or take a funny hop, so you have got to be ready for it at all times. You can’t make the assumption that it’s going to bounce your way every time. You’ve got to be ready to react.”
Since falling to the Bulldogs, the Red Devils regrouped and enter the championship game on a four-game winning streak.
“I think we’ve kind of hit our stride right now just for the simple reason that it seemed we played on hot nights all the time, and we don’t have a lot of substitutions,” Counce said. “We just struggled a lot I think as far as trying to get in shape and being able to play the whole game. Once the weather broke on us, it helped us a lot.”
Prior to beating the Red Devils, the Bulldogs were enjoying a solid start in their first year of playing eight-man football.
After beating the defending state champions, the expectations for Strong changed.
“When we played Mountain Pine and the way we handled them, we felt like maybe we’ve got a shot at going deep in the playoffs, but at the same time, you have to remind them of one game at a time,” Wright said.
“Just because we had this one game, we can’t have that high that week and go into the next game and not perform to our ability and the next time could take us out. It really uplifted the team goals from just making the playoffs to making a deep run in the playoffs.”