ELKTON — It’s been business as usual for Donnie Coleman so far.
But that will change.
For a coach whose motto is “taking it one game at a time,” that phrasing becomes even more relevant when talking about preparing for an opponent on a weekly basis.
“We have developed our scouting and have a library of film on most teams, but most of that is general preparation,” the 10th-year East Rockingham football coach said. “You never really get into it until the actual week of playing that opponent. We had staff meetings today and just look at different stuff as we plan for those teams.”
It seems like the standard for preseason preparation, but the Eagles, along with Luray, Page County and Stonewall Jackson, will have some adjustments to make this season as they enter their inaugural year in the Bull Run District.
The four schools join Clarke County, Madison County, Rappahannock County and Strasburg to round out an eight-team league after Central and George Mason moved up to the Class 3 Northwestern District.
“Moving to the Bull Run District will bring new and exciting adventures,” Luray coach Nolan Jeffries said. “”We are looking forward to shorter bus trips and developing new rivalries within the Bull Run, but we haven’t prepared any differently than we have the previous seasons.”
Before coming to the Bull Run, the four newcomers previously played in the Shenandoah District with four Augusta County schools — Buffalo Gap, Riverheads, Stuarts Draft and Wilson Memorial — and Staunton.
With East Rock, Luray, Page and Stonewall Jackson opting to move to the Bull Run, it left a sixth spot open in the Shenandoah, which Fort Defiance chose over remaining in the Valley District.
The teams in the Bull Run and Shenandoah haven’t been unfamiliar with each other, however, as they’ve been common opponents throughout regional play and even on the non-district schedule each year.
“We are coming from a tough league in the Shenandoah, so we knew we had to be up to the challenge each week in order to compete,” Jeffries said. “We were fortunate to play some of the teams in the Bull Run in our non-district schedule the past few years, so that helps a little with familiarity. I guess, when it comes down to it, we will have to treat the schedule just as we have in the past by taking it one game at a time and respecting each opponent.”
Coincidentally, this year, those teams are now looking toward their former Shenandoah District foes as non-district opponents and trying to maintain those long-standing rivalries.
East Rockingham will play Buffalo Gap and Riverheads, Luray will take on Wilson Memorial and Stuarts Draft, and Page County will face Wilson Memorial on the non-district schedule before diving into league play.
“It was my choice to play Riverheads and Gap,” Coleman said. “They have traditionally been two of the top [teams] in the Shenandoah District, and with us leaving, it made sense for travel purposes. I feel like we got the best deal because we were in the middle and it was tough finding opponents to play you.”
Although Stonewall Jackson’s three-game non-district slate doesn’t feature any former Shenandoah opponents this season — it Will face Central, William Campbell and Fort Defiance — Generals coach Peter Lampman said that will change in the future.
While still trying to build a winning culture at SJHS — the Generals have lost 38 straight and are just 5-67 since 2012 — Lampman said moving to a new district has brought a refreshing sense of energy around the field as the team prepares for the season.
“The excitement level here is high,” Lampman said. “Both the coaches and the players are excited to see some new schools on the schedule with new challenges. … It has been a struggle around here over the last few years so we are busy trying to change the culture and direction of the program, regardless of the district.”
What the four new teams bring to the district varies as all four are in different spots.
East Rock, undoubtedly, comes in as the most established program after going 13-1 and reaching the Virginia High School League Class 2 semifinals a year ago.
The Eagles, have been to the playoffs every year since 2011, but they’re not the only team with a winning résumé as Luray has reached the postseason each year since 2013.
Last season, the Bulldogs went 8-4 before falling 63-21 to Central in the Region 2B quarterfinals. Page, meanwhile, went 4-6 — the most wins since 2005.
Coaches around the league this year all agreed that East Rock and Luray, along with Strasburg and Clarke County, are likely to be the four that will be battling for the district crown.
“The Bull Run has some traditional powers,” Coleman said. “Strasburg and Madison County have been state powers at one time or another and immediately bring recognition to the district. Page has a nice group returning, Luray seems to always make the playoffs and is a tough out and Pete has done a nice job at Stonewall.”
Strasburg is led by William & Mary commit Chase Hart at quarterback and Clarke County hasn’t had a losing season since 2006.
“I know that Strasburg always has a competitive football team,” Jeffries said. “Coach Roller always has his guys ready to play and they will have a very talented QB this year. I look for them to be a strong passing team. East Rockingham is always well-coached with an athletic group of kids and Clarke County is a strong football team that tries to run it down your throat. These teams are all well coached with hard nosed kids.”
The Virginia High School League Alignment Committee voted Wednesday for more changes across the district and regional landscapes.
Regardless of how it plays out, coaches said playing in the Bull Run District this season will provide some new, unique challenges for their teams.
But much like it was in the Shenandoah, it’s still business as usual. For now.
“We are just preparing ourselves to do what we want to do to the best of our ability,” Lampman said. “Who we play really has no bearing on our preparation for the season. So, no, the challenges are not different but remain the same. We want to change the culture and get better.”