By Brian Eller -- firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Last month in gym class, Gage Steele knew he was in trouble.
After landing awkwardly on his left ankle, the Warren County sophomore realized the pain was too much to simply walk off. It wasn't going away, and the eventual swelling told him what he didn't want to hear.
Steele had a sprained left ankle, and would be forced to miss time on the football field.
"When it popped, it hurt really bad to walk on it," Steele said. "Later on it started swelling really bad, and I kind of got sad because I really wanted to play in that game we were getting ready for."
Fortunately for Steele, his injury kept him out just a few weeks and the Wildcats' running back/linebacker returned to action for the team's Sept. 25 game against James Wood. Both Steele and Warren County coach Tony Tallent admitted he wasn't at full strength, however, not until last Friday's nail-biter against Handley. Though Warren County fell in overtime to the Judges, Steele was a contributing factor on both sides of the ball, and now the sophomore is back at 100 percent.
"What we saw from him was obviously what we depend on him for," Tallent said. "Defensively he's a presence in the middle, and offensively his blocks were critical on most of our touchdown runs. I believe there was only one scoring play where Gage was not directly involved in [it], so it was good."
In just his second season with the Wildcats, Steele has emerged as one of the leaders on a team loaded with experience. Warren County returned its leading passer, rusher and receiver from 2008, including portions of the offensive and defensive lines, giving the Wildcats one of the most experienced teams in the Evergreen District.
Last season, quarterback Austin Schwarz threw for more than 800 yards and eight touchdowns, while running back Marty Haley eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark and 13 scores. And with both Haley and Steele in the backfield this season, Warren County's offense has developed its own one-two punch in the running game. Both backs are averaging more than eight yards per carry, and have combined for seven touchdowns through four games.
But while Steele has become a factor at the running back position, he's also emerging as the team's best defender. As a freshman Steele led the team with 80 tackles, and despite missing time this year, has registered 20, third best on the team. When asked which position he likes to play, Steele hesitated, then gave an answer any linebacker would agree with.
"I like hitting people," Steele said, chuckling. "But I like running the ball, too, so I'd have to say I like both sides of the ball."
Whether he's playing at the linebacker position, or doing his best to elude the ones trying to bring him down, Steele said his mentality on the field is the same. He says he tries his best to "go hard" on every play, an attribute Tallent has noticed in the young star.
"Gage is definitely a lead by example guy," Tallent said. "That's not only on the field, it's in the classroom and in the hallway. Gage, however, is not afraid to let people know when to step into line. And when he says things, because he does say things so rarely, it carries a lot of weight."
And despite his injury, Steele said he'll continue to push himself on the field in order to improve his team's chances of winning.
"I've definitely been cautious about [the ankle]," he said. "I don't want to sit out another game, but I'm going to go my hardest in practice all of the time."