By Ben Brooks -- firstname.lastname@example.org
STRASBURG -- Warren County football coach Tony Tallent believes defense will be the key to the Wildcats' season.
If Friday night's opener against non-district foe Strasburg is any indication, the Wildcats could be headed for big things.
Warren County recovered four fumbles, intercepted a pass and stopped Strasburg on three fourth-down plays on its way to a 27-7 victory over the Rams.
"We've been saying all along that we're going to hang our hat on our defense," said Tallent, whose Wildcats hope to improve on last year's three-win mark in the new Evergreen District. "We've really put an emphasis on that. That way we put our best 11 over there."
Complementing Warren County's defense was a big-play running attack that struck quickly and accounted for all 334 of the Wildcats' offensive yards.
Senior Marty Haley took the first carry of the second quarter and raced 79 yards for the game's first touchdown. The two-play drive -- a sign of things to come for the Wildcats -- came following Will Hoffmaster's fumble recovery inside Warren County's 20.
Defense set up Warren County's next score as well. After stopping Rams quarterback Michael Reynolds short on a fourth-and-1 from Strasburg's 37-yard line, the Wildcats needed just three plays to capitalize. Backup tailback Gage Steele went around the left side for a 29-yard touchdown run that led to a 14-0 halftime lead.
"When the defense gives us the ball it really gives us a spark on offense," Haley said. "From there, we just start clicking together."
"The last thing we needed to do was help them," Strasburg coach Mark Roller said of his team's turnovers. "You just can't do that and expect to win. Good football teams take advantage."
Haley, a 1,000-yard runner last season, finished with 188 yards on just 14 carries and scored a pair of touchdowns. Steele, who also forced a second-half fumble, added two scoring runs and finished with 106 yards.
Warren County effectively put the game away with two runs to start the third quarter: Haley's 24-yard burst and Steele's 36-yard touchdown scamper in which he bounced off Tanner Orndorff's hit at the line and broke to the outside.
Haley added a 4-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter on a more traditional 10-play, 48-yard scoring drive.
Strasburg avoided the shutout when Reynolds hit Sheldon Stickley with a 52-yard scoring strike with 5:13 left to play.
The Rams got a combined 132 rushing yards from running backs McKelvey and Orndorff and 73 passing yards from Reynolds, but the offense couldn't sustain drives. Strasburg, which boasts an entirely new offensive line, also hurt itself with eight penalties, several of which turned short third-down plays into long-yardage situations.
"I think we played a lot better offensively than we did last year [a 43-20 loss]," Roller said. "We just had some turnovers and couldn't make the big plays. We'll go back and correct some of these problems. We're a young group. We're going to make some mistakes."
The Wildcats hope Friday's opener is a sign of things to come, although Haley cautioned some of his teammates as they celebrated.
"We just have to build on this win," Haley said. "Every game is going to get tougher."