Following a disappointing 3-7 season in 2012, the Knights have turned things around under new coach Chris Slade with a 4-2 overall record — already surpassing last season’s win total — and a 1-1 mark in Region 5A.
That’s not to say it has been a perfect season for Pace.
After beating Whitefield Academy 38-23 in its ’13 opener and scoring a convincing 42-9 win over Class A powerhouse Athens Academy to get off to a 2-0 start, the Knights proceeded to lose their next two games in a row — 28-18 to First Presbyterian Day and 22-14 to Our Lady of Mercy.
However, Pace got back on track two weeks ago with a 40-0 thrashing of Strong Rock Christian.
Slade, an All-America linebacker at Virginia and NFL All-Pro with the New England Patriots in the 1990s, is encouraged by how his Knights bounced back from their slump.
“I feel very good about the team,” Slade said. “The win [over Strong Rock two weeks ago] was big, coming off of a stretch where we lost two games in a row. I think it was everyone getting back on the same accord and the kids realizing you can’t take any team lightly and you have to be prepared every week. I think those two weeks in a row, we weren’t ready to play – but the other two teams were. FPD and OLM came out to play and they hit us in the mouth and we didn’t hit back and it showed.”
Nevertheless, it’s still a big step forward for Pace after struggling through the 2013 season.
While the Knights have benefited from an infusion of new talent, including junior fullback Malik Staples and freshman defensive end DeAndre Byrd, they have turned things around with basically the same lineup that took the field a year ago.
“Not to take away from the new guys who came in here, but if you look at our offense — we have nine of the 11 starters from last year’s team,” Slade said. “So we have only added a couple of additions. We’re winning mostly with kids who are returning from last year.”
Junior quarterback Kevin Johnson has been a big part of Pace’s success, completing 73 of 129 passes (57 percent) for 1,158 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Staples (63 carries, 241 yards (6.8 per carry), four TDs) has also been a major contributor on offense, along with senior wide receiver Kameron Uter (39 receptions, 423 yards, 10 TDs) and sophomore receiver Trevor Cefalu (41 rec., 239 yds., three TDs).
Senior safety and Stanford commitment Denzel Franklin (25 tackles, 3 interceptions) leads a defense that includes sophomore defensive end Anthony Trinh (47 tackles), senior safety Sam Rubenstein (28 tackles) and sophomore linebackers Jack Walsh (28 tackles), Byrd (27 tackles) and Philip Markwalter (22 tackles).
Pace is aiming for its second state playoff berth in the school’s six-year football history, having earned its lone postseason spot in 2010 — when it posted a 9-2 record.
The Knights appear to be on the bubble, however, as the 16th-ranked team in this week’s GHSA Class A private school power poll — with the top 16 teams qualifying for state.