HARRISONBURG – Since East Rockingham High School was established in 2010, four of the five Harrisonburg/Rockingham County football teams have finished atop the unofficial city/county standings.
Harrisonburg went 13-1 with a pair of Atlantic Coast Conference recruits and reached the Division 4 state championship game in 2010 in coach Tim Sarver’s final season.
In 2011, Broadway went 12-1 before bowing out in the Division 4 state semifinals.
East Rock won eight games in 2012, with a playoff victory, and Spotswood swept the Valley District en route to a 9-2 campaign last fall.
The common thread among all four? An offense that scores at least 30 points per game and a defense that allows 20 points or fewer.
Will a new team arise in 2014 to keep the trend going? Will Spotswood ride its newfound momentum to lead the area once again, despite graduating 23 seniors? Or will it be a year of surprises?
Here’s our preseason view of the pecking order (from best to worst), determined after consulting with coaches about how the five city/county teams might stack up this season, which begins Friday:
No. 1: Spotswood (9-2 last year)
City/County Offensive Rank: 1st (36.4 points per game)
City/County Defensive Rank: 1st (15.2 points allowed per game)
The Trailblazers swept the Valley District, with its two losses coming to Western Albemarle in the season opener and to Hidden Valley in the first round of the playoffs. Spotswood, though, lost a ton to graduation, including the bulk of its defense. Also gone are two 300-plus-pound starting linemen and tailback Matt Slater – who ran for 1,662 yards and scored 31 touchdowns.
Still, SHS coach Chris Dodson believes the Blazers are reloading in key spots and will be even more difficult to defend with a more balanced attack, including more passing plays for second-year junior quarterback Zach Polglase. Senior Mike Soard gives SHS a tough, shifty running back, and sophomore Brady Dodson fits the mold of Slater coming off a successful junior varsity season in which he scored double-digit touchdowns.
“If we’re healthy, we’re the best team in the league,” Dodson said.
Strength: Confidence. SHS learned how to win games last season and has enough seniors back who experienced last year’s nine-game winning streak.
Weakness: Depth. Fewer big-bodied linemen may be cause for concern if the injury bug hits.
Key games: Friday at Western Albemarle and Sept. 12 at home against Wilson Memorial. Starting off on the right foot will be imperative for the Blazers. Not unlike SHS, Western lost lots of seniors, but it has won 10 games in three of the past five years. Wilson has been billed as the best team in the area with Juh-Kwquan McCauley and Savant Swift back at running back.
No. 2 East Rockingham (7-4 last season)
City/County Offensive Rank: 3rd (26.2 ppg)
City/County Defensive Rank: 2nd (21 papg)
The Eagles have made the playoffs in each of the past three seasons and continue to lead the area in the number of players on their roster. All despite being the youngest program and smallest school in Harrisonburg/Rockingham.
“Their numbers are really good,” TA coach Charlie Newman said. “… They were pretty successful out the gate and they’ve built on that success. Kids want to be a part of that.”
Though ERHS graduated 1,500-yard passer Hunter Harman, the Eagles have a senior-laden backfield, two senior All-Shenandoah District wide receivers (Noah Brown and Raymond Simpson) and size up front to give opponents problems in their wing-T attack.
“I think any team that is a threat to run the football and throw the football, they have a chance to succeed in high school football,” Dodson said. “And they have a lot of size, so they’re going to do really well.”
Strength: Experience at skill positions. The Eagles return two of their top three rushers and all four of their leading receivers from 2013 – a group that accounted for over 2,000 yards of offense.
Weakness: Inexperienced QB. Whoever wins the quarterback job between senior Timmy Sapp and sophomore Jaylen McNair will be starting his first varsity game on Sept. 5 against Strasburg. An emphasis on running the football should ease the transition, but it’s hard to imagine East Rock’s passing game not regressing with Harman graduating. Sapp was new to the position last season as the Eagles’ scout-team quarterback, and McNair has not played a game since quarterbacking the junior varsity team in 2012.
Key games: Oct. 3 at Riverheads and Oct. 24 at Wilson. The only two teams East Rock has yet to beat in the rugged Shenandoah District will play host to the Eagles, who beat Stuarts Draft for the first time last season.
No. 3 Broadway (3-7 last season)
City/County Offensive Rank: 5th (19.5 ppg)
City/County Defensive Rank: 3rd (22.6 papg)
The Gobblers’ defense remained strong in a down season in 2013, and the offense has the pieces in place to be improved.
Second-year sophomore quarterback Kirk Rygol has been sharp during the preseason, and Broadway will have tailbacks Austen Delawder and Ryan Smith back for their senior campaigns. Plus, BHS coach Brad Lutz said a deep receiving corps will allow the Gobblers to be more balanced this season.
With their most experienced team since their state semifinals run in 2011, the Gobblers should be much improved, although expecting the BHS offense to average 10-plus more points per game to reach the elite threshold might be asking too much.
Strength: Defense. While Broadway will be breaking in new starters on the line, it has been able to generate turnovers this preseason by getting into the backfield and taking advantage of an aggressive secondary led by senior cornerbacks Phillip Mugrage and Tyler Williams. That could become a key combination, especially against spread offenses predicated on the pass.
Key games: Road dates at Waynesboro – which has looked explosive at times this year against higher-classified teams during scrimmages – and R.E. Lee should test BHS. The Gobblers will get Fort Defiance, Harrisonburg and Spotswood at home, but those teams have given BHS problems in the past and should be as good or better than last season.
No. 4 Harrisonburg (2-8 last season)
2013 City/County Offensive Rank: 4th (24.7 ppg)
2013 City/County Defensive Rank: 5th (35.9 papg)
The Blue Streaks have been proactive in improving on both sides of the ball after last year’s surprisingly bad 2-8 campaign, focusing on running the ball more with 6-foot, 200-pound tailback Devin Medley and switching their defense for the first time in more than 20 years from a 3-4 to a 4-3.
However, inexperience up front and at quarterback – HHS announced freshman A.C. White as its starter last week – gives reason to temper expectations, particularly with a difficult schedule that includes Handley, Liberty-Bedford and 6A Patrick Henry-Roanoke.
Strength: Medley. The returning junior has all the tools to be a dominant running back and help open up passing lanes for Harrisonburg’s spread offense.
Weakness: Inexperience up front and on defense. Junior Eli Whitelow could be the only returning starter on the offensive line, and he will be playing a new position at left tackle. Meanwhile, Medley will be the only returning starter on defense at inside linebacker.
Key games: Oct. 24 vs. Turner Ashby and Oct. 31 at Broadway. These back-to-back games late in the season could be critical for HHS’s playoff hopes. TA needed a school-record 315-yard rushing performance from then-senior Shane Brown to beat the Streaks 48-36 last fall, sealing the victory on one of Brown’s five touchdowns with less than three minutes to go. Harrisonburg beat BHS 36-24 last season, but the Gobblers will be more experienced than HHS this fall.
No. 6 Turner Ashby (3-7 last season)
City/County Offensive Rank: 2nd (29.7 ppg)
City/County Defensive Rank: 4th (35.2 papg)
Offense was by far the highlight of 2013 as the Knights nearly set TA single-season records in passing, rushing and receiving. Evan Hanifee set the passing mark, throwing for 1,497 yards. Shane Brown got the rushing record with 1,553 yards. Both graduated. Hanifee’s replacement, junior Mason Fridley, has the ability to be an elite quarterback. However, with a difficult schedule and having to replace talented players such as Brown, TA might find it hard to truly show improvement, even if it is better than last season.
Strength: Togetherness. Sometimes, teamwork can trump talent. That’s especially true in football. Newman believes this team is one of the most tight-knit he’s coached.
Weakness: Experience. Leadership might be TA’s toughest thing to replace this season with 28 sophomores on the roster. The Knights could start three sophomores on a defense that struggled last season, allowing more than 35 points per game.
Key games: Sept. 5 at Brookville and Sept. 12 vs. Rockbridge. Two close losses last year led to a 0-3 start that crippled TA. A stronger start to the season will be important in terms of building confidence for the younger Knights.