Football Preview 2017: Clarke County reloading with blend of newcomers and veterans

Clarke County coach Chris Parker watches his starting offense work during a recent practice. Rich Cooley/Daily

BERRYVILLE – The football coaches at Clarke County High School reward their players for gains made in the weight room each year, where certain amounts of combined weight lifted earn that player inclusion in certain “clubs.”

On the lowest rungs are the White, Orange and Blue clubs – named after the school’s colors – but things become more exclusive at the Iron Eagle level, which nets players a trophy if they can eclipse 1,200 total pounds combined over four different lifts. Not so long ago, longtime Clarke County head coach Chris Parker had to add another level – Platinum Iron Eagle – for those who surpass 1,500 pounds.

“I don’t know how many thousands of dollars I’ve had to spend in football money to give out these trophies,” Parker said following practice earlier this month, “which is a good problem.”

That devotion to offseason preparation has bred an evolution in Clarke County’s weight program over the last decade, Parker said. It’s also the reason the head coach, entering his 18th season with the Eagles, didn’t seem too overly concerned following an early August practice about finding capable replacements for a large contingent of graduated seniors from his 2016 squad.

Among the 20 seniors lost – including five all-state honorees – from last season were the Eagles’ top three leading rushers, who combined for 3,820 yards and 50 touchdowns in Clarke County’s potent single-wing offense in 2016. That includes Hunter Rogers, the program’s all-time leading rusher who piled up 2,410 yards and 31 touchdowns last season; quarterback Chris Davis, who rushed for 691 yards, passed for 414 more and combined for 13 total touchdowns; and wingback Daniel Braithwaite, who rushed for 729 yards and 11 TDs.

To reload the offense at the unit’s most statistically productive positions, Parker has turned to a pair of sophomores. The head coach said Peyton Rutherford (listed at 6 feet tall, 190 pounds) would be the Eagles’ primary running back, while Colby Childs would take the snaps at quarterback.

Both will make their first varsity starts today against Dominion.

“Our (eighth and ninth graders) run the same offense, same terminology, everything, so it’s not like they have to learn anything new,” said Parker, whose team reached the third round of the Region 2A East playoffs last season. “It’s just the fact that now they’re in a varsity football game.”

That duo will have help up front from an experienced offensive line that includes returning starters Bryan Wallace, a first team VHSL Group 2A All-State selection last season, Kyle Anderson and Pete McLean, center Nate Barb and 6-foot-7, 300-pound tackle Jacob Peace.

All five linemen are seniors, as are blocking back Rico Nappi – another returning starter – and tight ends Ed Buzalsky and Lucas Rogers.

“I think if any scenario was set, this year would be good to have a young backfield because we have a strong … very experienced line,” said Parker, who added that junior Kyle Baylor (346 rushing yards, five touchdowns in 2016) and senior Cole Lawson have been competing at wingback.

Parker said many of those same names from the offensive side of the ball will comprise a defense that returns six starters from a unit that held opponents to 13.8 points per game last season.

Wallace, the two-time Region 2A East Defensive Player of the Year who amassed 141 total tackles, 14 tackles for loss and eight sacks, is one of three returning Eagles who finished among the team’s top four in tackles a year ago. That list also includes Nappi (100 tackles) and Lucas Rogers (92 tackles).

Parker said he foresees the 2017 Eagles continuing to “do what we do,” which at Clarke County means playing a very physical brand of football.

“(I expect us) to be able to continue to run our offense and try to dominate the line of scrimmage and do what we do, like we’ve always been able to do, and establish that line of scrimmage in our offense,” he said. “Then defensively, same thing. We hit and just have hard-nosed football like we’ve always had at Clarke. We have tough kids here… and I know (that they’ll carry) that weight-room mentality on the field.”

Nicholas Bahamonde will handle the kicking duties for the Eagles this season.

Clarke County, which went 10-3 (5-1 Bull Run District) last season, is two years removed from the program’s first-ever state championship game appearance, and Parker said this year’s team is built to make a run at its first state title if the Eagles can remain healthy.

“Our guys have been there,” Parker said. “Two years ago we were in the state championship. We’ve been in the playoffs … for nine, 10 years in a row. That’s the expectation, and the ultimately goal is to win the state championship. That’s what you’ve gotta play for.”