By Brian Eller - email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- When Derek Helsley lines up under center, the guys staring back at him are ready to take his head off.
It might just be another practice at Skyline, but don't tell that to the Hawks' front seven. Guys like Luke Pingley, who towers at 6 feet 5 inches; Alex Nickens, who registered five sacks last season; and senior Ben Schurtz are ready to pounce, each one hell-bent on being the first to reach the quarterback.
Helsley's position as Skyline's quarterback isn't one to be envied in those situations. The good news for the senior, however, is he won't have to face those guys in an actual game.
"They're so fast," Helsley said. "Luckily they ease up on me" if they reach their teammate.
"It is nice knowing come game time we're on the same team, though."
As Skyline marches through training camp, a number of expectations have fallen on Helsley and that impressive defensive front. Following a season in which the Hawks advanced to the regional playoffs, both players and coaches know the potential this year's team brings and the work that needs to be put in August in order to reach it.
"Some of the expectations are really big for us," Pingley said. "We got to the regional playoff game last year and although we lost, that's definitely a big step up for this team. We need to go to the playoffs again, but we want to go deeper."
In order for them to go deeper in the playoffs, the Hawks must work on bucking a recent trend that's plagued them the past few years. In 2007, Skyline began the season 3-1, but dropped its final six games to finish 3-7. One year later the Hawks bounced back, earning a 7-3 record. All three losses, however, came in the second half of the season. History struck again last year, as Skyline jumped out to a 5-1 start but finished the season 6-5.
Part of the reason is likely attributed to playing in the always-tough Northwestern District, where teams wreak havoc on each other in the second half of the season. But some players say it's a matter of conditioning and being able to push through at full speed for four quarters.
Whatever the reason may be, this year's team is focused on re-writing history and making sure the Hawks are poised to have a full, successful campaign.
"I think one of the things was playing our district games later in the year, we were going up against teams there were bigger and a little better than us," Schurtz said. "This year we've been working ourselves to the max, lifting in the offseason and all of that stuff, so you won't find us being blown away by other teams anymore. We want to come out on top against teams like Handley, James Wood and Sherando."
Wins against those district opponents would surely put Skyline in good position for a deep postseason run, and it all starts with Helsley leading the offense.
Last season, quarterback Josiah Patrick led a Hawks team that put up double digit points in all but two games, while Helsley served as a utility man, playing several different positions during the year. Now, with Patrick suiting up for the Judges this fall, the keys to the offense belong to Helsley, whose combination of footwork and passing skills has already opened up the potential for more variety.
"There's been a lot of balance this year," Schurtz said. "There's been a lot more passing. I've gotten a lot of balls thrown to me as the tight end, but also a lot of blocks, so there's a good mix."
Defensively, Nickens will shift to the team's outside linebacker position, giving coach Heath Gilbert more options on that side of the ball. Last year, Nickens and Pingley were forced to rotate in and out of the game for certain formations, a problem hopefully remedied by Nickens' shift to linebacker.
"It was just a personnel decision," Gilbert said. "When we run a nickel D-line, he's going to go back to rush the passer anyway, but this was the way to get our best 11 athletes on the field."