By Jeremy Stafford -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- There's a peculiar aura enveloping the Shenandoah locker room, and hovering over Sprint Field at Shentel Stadium. One which hasn't existed since 2004, when the Hornets were the co-champions of the USA South.
Though the Hornets won only three games last year, that aura has enlivened players' nostrils: They can almost smell the wins which will surely pile up in the coming weeks. That aura has cleared their once clouded eyes: They can see themselves making tackles, breaking tackles and high-stepping their way into end zones. That aura has unclogged their ears: They can hear Shenandoah coach Paul Barnes speak of them as he speaks of that 2004 team.
At many college campuses, that aura is diluted, and it's called hope; at Shenandoah, it's thick and heavy and has no distinct name. Call it swagger, call it conviction, call it prognostication, one thing is for sure: Shenandoah is thinking championship.
Indeed, players romp along the Sprint Field turf, dreaming of the glittering, glamorous championship rings that may adorn their fingers by season's end. The seniors speak of the promises they made to each other as freshmen, and the freshmen speak of making those same promises to each other for the first time.
"I've been here four years with [senior linebacker] Joe [Lunsford] -- known him since we came in the same class together," senior strongside defensive end Mo Salih said. "When we got in here, we knew we wanted to get a ring before we left, and we're gonna get one this year."
And it's Lunsford, Shenandoah's stalwart defensive leader, along with brother Vern, the quarterback who last year broke two passing records set by former SU quarterback Jon Hoffman in 2004, who are responsible for the thickening of the Hornets' hope, and for changing that aura from a light, dusty cloud, able to be brushed away by the first loss of the season, to something so thick and viscous it sticks to the guts and hearts of every Shenandoah player no matter what comes of the season's early games.
"We're hoping to compete for the conference," Vern said. "We lost a lot of close games last year and we addressed a lot of those mistakes that we made.
"We've gotta go out and execute, but we're looking forward to it."
There's no pinpointing the exact reason Shenandoah lost so many close games last season. Of the Hornets' seven losses, only two were by more than 10 points. Shenandoah scored an average of 19 points per game, while the defense gave up an average of 21.6. Three of Shenandoah's losses were decided by a made or missed field goal.
Recalling those losses, a fire sparks in the far reaches of Vern's eyes, the light of which is made clear by that Hornet swagger. The fire snaps and pops and clicks and screams one undeniable truth: Vern expects his offense to score.
"Offensively, we expect to put up some points this year," the quarterback said. "We want to be more explosive, be more aggressive this year."
And the Hornets certainly have the ability to move the ball downfield in heavy doses. Vern returns as one of the most tenured quarterbacks ever at Shenandoah, and, according to Barnes, knows the offense as well as any of the coaches.
As such, Vern expects to check plays at the line of scrimmage more often than he did last year. He expects to hurl deep passes when defenses clog the box, and he expects to send his plethora of tailbacks right up the gut when defenses play too deep.
From there, it's a simple matter of playing 60 minutes of cat and mouse: Suck linebackers in with running backs Keone Kyle and Anthony Cordero, tear defensive backs apart with wideouts Rico Wallace and E.J. Brown, and watch the touchdowns pile on top of each other.
It really isn't all that hard to imagine.
Last season, Vern set single-season records at Shenandoah for pass completions (114), passing yards (1,474) and pass completions percentage (53.3). Since he set those records nearly a year ago, Vern has gotten better. Much better.
Over the summer he went to Atlanta, with Wallace to work with Competitive Edge Sports. The two learned about coverages, learned how to beat those coverages, and then trained to becomes fast and strong enough to actually beat those coverages.
The two came back to Winchester with a better understanding of defenses, and of each other.
"Basically, we want to intimidate [defenses] with the deep ball so that they play off and then we can get the short game, easy," Wallace explained. "[Vern and I] came closer, we hung out a little more than [we did] last year, and just basically found out a lot of different things about each other."
The Shenandoah offense dreams of being explosive and aggressive. Vern, Wallace and Cordero look forward to seeing if they can be as potent as they hope they are, and if they can score as often as they think they will.
Joe and the Shenandoah defense aren't dreaming: They know what they are capable of. The 21.6 points the Hornets gave up last year is an average inflated by the 47 points they gave up to N.C. Wesleyan on Oct. 25. Though the Bishops scored seven times in that game, it was plays like an unpredictable 78-yard halfback-option pass that gave N.C. Wesleyan much of it's offensive output.
Joe returns this season, along with John Redmond and Corey Giffing, to complete one of the most potent linebacking corps Shenandoah's seen. And though Joe is in only his second year as a starter, he is the defense's undisputed leader.
"He's a leader out there, he just needed the right people around him that would listen, and he finally got that," linebackers and special teams coach Tyrone Bell said. "He's got command of the huddle, he's not afraid to speak up, and he's always first in the drills ... he's a natural middle linebacker.
"He's one of those kids where, if you think of a position, if you think linebacker, you'll think of Joe."
But Joe, like most players trying to make the jump from high school star to college contributor, had a high ladder to climb early in his career. Though he saw a varying amount of time at linebacker, Joe made a name for himself as a gritty, grind-it-out contributor on special teams.
"I didn't really know what my role was gonna be," Joe admitted. "But as a freshman, you come in and you're just hoping to play, and that's what I got to do.
"And then I got my chance to start, and stepped into the role."
Joe's done more than step into the role, he's redefined it. He's taken the middle linebacker position, already a position of history at Shenandoah, and shaped it to his own liking. He led the team with 75 tackles last year (39 solo) and was named the USA South Defensive Player of the Week following a 30-22 win over Methodist to close the season.
Watching his brother swarm around with Redmond and Giffing, making tackles and halting drives, Vern knows that practicing against this aggressive Hornets defense has prepared him for whatever he may see later this season.
"It can only help us. They're a good defense, they're fast, they're aggressive," Vern said. "And that puts us in situations where we'll feel comfortable in games because we're used to it.
"It's good for us, we need to be thrown in the fire a little bit."
For two brothers to play on the same college team is rare enough; for each brother to lead their respective units is altogether unique.
"I'm just blessed with the Lunsford family," Barnes said. "I got a great leader in Vern at quarterback, I got a great leader in Joe.
"I tell you what, my problems as a head coach have gone down to very [few] things I have to come in and deal with."
And with more than 60 freshmen on the team this season, Barnes needs his seniors, particularly the Lunsford brothers, to carry on some of the disciplinary responsibilities.
"The freshmen fall into place right off the bat because of the senior leadership," Barnes said. "So the seniors really lay down the law here."
When Barnes asked his team to be cleanly shaven for this season's team picture day -- a day Barnes typically spends rummaging through his team like a hamper full of dirty laundry, searching out the handful of players who refuse to shave -- he was met by a team with smooth, smiling faces.
Sure some of the players, particularly Vern and Joe, sported well-groomed mustaches along their upper lip, but Barnes saw that the seniors made sure his rules were followed, and so Barnes had one less complication to deal with as he prepared his team for a brutal football season sure to be tough from the onset.
Today, Vern and Joe open the Shenandoah season at Catholic, a team that beat the Hornets 23-20 a year ago in Winchester, when a botched field goal in overtime quickly developed into a disheartening, game-winning touchdown pass from Dan Jones to Sean Green.
When the seniors think back to that game, that thick aura returns to surround, and that swagger fills their hearts and burns brightly in their eyes.
And Joe Lunsford imagines the friends and family that surround him through every grueling practice, through every exhausting game.
"Having great coaches and just great teammates around you, too, it really just makes you want to be a great player and just work together with everybody well," he said. "...You know, you're just out there to play football, and you're out there having fun, and hopefully everybody works together.
"It's a good mentality to have, and it's fun. That's the whole point of playing football."