LEXINGTON — It was an odd, but completely reasonable explanation.
When talking about running back Grant Swinehart, who is considered one of the area’s best players, Turner Ashby coach Chris Fraser said he wants defenses focused on him.
“Everything goes through him,” Fraser said. “We want defenses keying on him. It sounds odd to say, but that helps open things up for [C.J.] Haskins, [Jalin]Quintanilla, [Jared] Peake and Nico [Valle]. We have those other weapons we can get the ball to.”
As the Knights prepare to take on Valley District opponent Rockbridge County tonight at 7 p.m. in Lexington in the regular-season finale for both teams, Swinehart has found his groove again after taking six carries for 214 yards and five touchdowns a week ago.
The 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior ranks second in the Valley District with 1,448 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns, but was held under 100 yards in back-to-back weeks against a pair of strong defense in unbeaten Spotswood and city/county rival Harrisonburg.
“Man, I’m telling you. Grant Swinehart is a different animal,” Wildcats coach Mark Poston said. “He’s a big kid, a good-looking kid. He can really run the football. We’ve got wear him out on defense and make him run sideline to sideline in order to stop him.”
Ask Waynesboro about trying to make Swinehart run sideline to sideline and the Little Giants will tell you how hard it is after the TA standout scored on his first five touches of last week’s 75-6 dismantling in the finale of the Shenandoah Valley Football Classic.
That performance, which also saw the Knights score on seven of their first eight plays and 68 first-half points, brought the Knights back to life after back-to-back losses.
“Right now, our team has a lot of confidence,” said Haskins, who has 1,319 total yards and 12 touchdowns. “Coming off a solid performance, our team is filled with the energy and vigor we had at the beginning of the year. With this return of confidence, our team is ready for this big challenge Friday night and are ready to keep our momentum rolling.”
Both teams have already clinched postseason berths with Rockbridge earning its third straight trip to the playoffs while Turner Ashby is back for the first time since 2015.
But what’s unique about this week’s regular-season finale is the fact that the two teams sit at No. 4 and No.5 in the current Virginia High School League Region 3C power ratings and, barring any major changes, will likely face each other again next week.
“This is a huge game for us,” Haskins said. “Not only is this game right before the postseason, but it’s also against the team we will probably meet in the first round. With that in mind, there is a ton of excitement going into Friday knowing that we can set the tone and dictate how our postseason is going to play out.”
The Knights have been improved defensively this year after struggling through the first two years under Fraser and are giving up just 13.8 points per game in district play.
But they’ll face on of their biggest tests yet this week against a Rockbridge County offense that is now known for being more balanced that it has been in previous years.
“Like we always feel, we need to get pressure on the quarterback,” Fraser said. “That’s our focus going into every week. We feel like one of our strong suits is getting pressure. Really, nothing special is changing with dropping into coverage. They are also good at running the ball. They’re dangerous doing that. We’re just trying to get ready for both.”
The Wildcats are coming off a thrilling 34-29 win over Harrisonburg, where they showcased the running of Gage Shafer and Bret McClung out of the backfield while also displaying quarterback Miller Jay’s phenomenal arm in the passing game at times.
“It was really needed for the kids’ confidence,” Postson said. “We just played well in a big game and that was needed. After taking a look at the film, we really played well on both offense and defense. We were really efficient and the kids did a fantastic job.”
It was a promising sight for Poston to see his team play so well on a big stage after being dismantled by Spotswood earlier this season in a highly-anticipated matchup.
Since then, Poston said he’s seen his young team grow up a little bit in recent weeks.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth,” the third-year Wildcats coach said. “For the most part, we’re still a really young football team and people forget about that.. I’ve seen growth out of the receivers, Miller has been fantastic, the offensive line has been really good. Defensively, all of those guys have been fantastic. It’s a good time right now, man.”
While it’s been fun recently for the Wildcats, the Knights are having a good time, too.
Fraser said a part of that is because of the youth of his roster and the fact that they haven’t been in this position and are still understanding the magnitude of the game.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” Fraser said. “I don’t think they see the difference. They’re their normal, goofy selves. They’re wide open at practice. Our biggest thing is that’s a long ride back from Rockbridge tomorrow night as a loser. They need to think about that because we’re likely doing it again next week. … Honestly, though, they’re better when they’re wide open. We’ve tried to press the difference of how playoff teams prepare now. This is essentially a playoff game now. It’s not like, ‘Oh, well. We live to see another day and get a new opponent.’ No. We’re in a unique situation.”
That unique situation is exactly why Swinehart said the team needs to be locked in.
And as one of TA’s senior captains, he knows it’s his job to make sure they are.
“We are just trying to stay focused and disciplined,” Swinehart said. “We aren’t treating this any different than any other game. We gotta go 1-0 each week. We have to play our game on offense and play disciplined on defense. It’s important that we keep intensity and pressure all game. This is just another game for us. We need to execute and take care of business since there’s a strong chance we see this team again in the playoffs.”
That just-another-game approach from Swinehart is why he’s so respected in the TA locker room and it’s why his coach said he’s going to be missed after this season.
And even though Fraser said he wanted the opposing defenses to start focusing on Swinehart to open up things for some of the other Knights offensively, the third-year coach also acknowledged that sometimes big players simply make big plays.
“In games like this one coming up, these are the games where Grant should be the star,” Fraser said. “He should shine and he should carry us offensively. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s capable of doing so.”