BERRYVILLE — There’s a sense of pride that comes when playing at East Rockingham, according to the players, and it has been on display recently.
The Eagles, after dropping four of their first six games, have been one of the hottest area teams as of late, winning five of their last six and four in a row to finish the season.
“It wasn’t exactly a “light bulb” moment, but I think the week of preparation for Page was really, really good,” ERHS coach Donnie Coleman said. “The kids just understood then that, ‘Hey, if we work like this and work as a team, good things can happen.’ And they beat a pretty good football team that night and it started snowballing.
"Once you think you’re good, it’s amazing. We didn’t want that false sense of hope by scheduling a bunch of weak teams. We wanted to know exactly where we stood and we found out."
When the sixth-seeded Eagles travel to third-seeded Clarke County for a Region 2B quarterfinal clash at 7 p.m tonight. in Berryville, it’s two teams familiar with success.
Clarke has reached the playoffs 13 straight times while East Rock, which was built in 2010, has made the postseason nine years in a row with Coleman as the coach.
“We’re really just taking everything more serious,” ERHS running back Trent Morris said. “We understand, right now, that it’s a do-or-die situation. If you win, you advance. If you lose, you’re done. For our group of seniors, they’ve really stepped up and realized that. They’ve taken it upon themselves and pushed the team to work harder, practice harder. The whole senior class has stepped up as leaders. It has really helped.”
Before this season, East Rockingham and Clarke County had only met one other time with CCHS coming away with a 19-0 non-district shutout in Berryville in 2010.
With ERHS moving to the Bull Run District this year, the two teams met earlier this season for a second time and Clarke dominated from start to finish in a 42-7 rout.
“We knew going in they were a good football team,” Coleman said of the late-September matchup. “They’re kind of a tradition-rich program. It’s a tough environment to play in. Year in and year out, [Clarke] coach [Chris] Parker has a tough, hard-nosed football team. It’s tough for me to say, but in the physical aspect of the game, we did not win. They set the tone early on. They came out more hungry than we were at the time and hopefully, we can go down there this time and change that.”
East Rock, however, has looked like a different team in a lot of ways since that loss.
Morris and Colton Dean, specifically, have helped the ERHS run game get going with a combined 1,532 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns and also lead the way defensively.
“We have got to be able to run the football,” Coleman said. “We stress to our kids that we have to be able to run our offense. That’s No. 1. We want to throw it, don’t want to be one-dimensional. That’s hard to do and makes it hard for us to win big games like this. That’s at any level. If you can run the football, it makes life a little easier on your quarterback. We’re going to take what they’re giving us and we’ll see what happens.”
Coleman mentioned that the Clarke County (8-2) defense doesn’t get enough credit for how good it has been with All-Bull Run District linebacker Cody Sowers leading the way.
But there’s no doubt ERHS defensive coordinator Kyle Gillenwater will have his hands full with the Clarke offense, as well, with first-team all-district quarterback Colby Childs leading the way with 1,135 yards, 13 touchdowns and just three interceptions this year.
“The one thing they’ve been doing recently is just wreaking havoc and causing turnovers,” Coleman said of the key to his defense’s recent improvement. “A lot of people say that you can’t turn the ball over and this, that and the other. That’s true, but a lot of times if a defense is disrupting the flow of your offense, which we’ve been able to do, then people turn the ball over.
“The coaches have done a great job, kids have done an excellent job. We are kind of led by our three senior linebackers and they’ve done a good job of being patient, letting the other kids grow into their roles. I’m definitely proud of the kids. I feel like we’re a better football team than we were when we went up there.”
Morris pointed to a 35-30 win over rival Page County on Oct. 18 as the turning point.
Since that win, East Rock (6-4) has won three more and finished 5-2 in district play.
“Against Page, we really stepped up and played a good game,” said Morris, who also has 50 tackles this year. “We kind of capitalized on that against Luray. We just surprised everybody. We were tired of being pushed around and we were the underdogs. We came out and showed them. That’s really motivated us and capped off this run for us.”
Throughout their late-season run, the “underdog” mentality has been played by ERHS.
East Rock has consistently said it felt like it was better than it showed early on against elite competition and is ready now to prove that it’s a much-improved team since then.
“The seniors know their time is running out,” Morris said. “They understand we have to give it all in every game from here on out. We have to push ourselves, make some noise and try to stir things up a little bit. We’re going in as the lower seed, going to be traveling around a lot. We just have to make our name known and do what we do.”
That sense of pride from Morris is evident in all of the East Rockingham players.
And it’s why now that they’re in the postseason, they want to stay for a while.
“The kids have been excellent,” Coleman said. “It’s a fun group, but we’re not happy to just be here. Our kids are expecting and wanting success at this level. A lot of people celebrate getting to the playoffs. Our kids are ready to go.”