By Brian Eller - email@example.com
FRONT ROYAL -- Warren County still remembers what happened last season. The results on the field and the final record certainly warrant a season to forget, but the Wildcats are letting 2009's disappointing campaign linger.
Like any season, last year came with highs and lows, mostly lows as the Wildcats stumbled to a 3-7 record. No moment reminds them more of their shortcomings than last season's overtime loss to Handley, where the Judges squeaked out a 31-30 win.
"I was just sitting on the sideline thinking, 'No, this didn't just happen,'" then-junior quarterback Austin Schwarz said. "As soon as [they] scored on the kick, I was just broken."
At the time the loss left the Wildcats stunned, another gray cloud blanketing an already dark season. Nearly one year later, however, the Wildcats are looking at that loss as the potential turnaround for a program still aiming to produce its breakout squad.
"Last year we were going into some games and when we played those teams, I wouldn't say we were scared," Damien Caison said, "but it was like, 'It's them,' and we put ourselves on a lower pedestal. That game at Handley [this year] is definitely marked. Every kid in [the locker room], if you went in there and asked them which game they can't wait to play, it's that Handley game. That's what drove us, that overtime loss. That showed us we can play with the best teams in the state."
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, their shot at revenge against the Judges is still a few months away, but watching a mid-August practice, it's clear something is different about this season at Warren County. Players are focused, more intense on even the most mundane assignments. Player after player echoes the same determination to produce a winning season and take Warren County deep into the postseason.
"All of us, we've talked and we all agree on the same thing," Caison said. "Ten games isn't enough."
Ten games only gets you through a regular season, which has the Wildcats thinking of a district title and beyond. Fortunately for this year's team, there's a good chance those goals may come to fruition.
While a number of teams are facing the challenges of replacing players lost at key positions, Warren County returns scores of talent at several positions, including quarterback, running back and the offensive line.
It will all start with Schwarz, the man under center for the Wildcats. Entering his senior season, Schwarz used the offseason to improve his ability to throw from both sides of the field and lead an offense that has plenty of weapons at his disposal.
"I've got to keep everybody's heads up and lead the team," Schwarz said. "My job is to make sure everybody's doing what they're supposed to be doing and take us where we need to go."
Schwarz will likely split time with sophomore Tyler Post, who threw for 216 yards and a touchdown last season.
Whoever is at the helm for the Wildcats, he'll benefit from having a strong and experienced offensive line, which returns four of its five starters from last year. Seniors Mike Helmenski, A.J. Lockhart and Ben Carey will anchor a unit that will be busy protecting either Schwarz or Post and paving the way for Warren County's versatile rushing attack.
"With a lot of our offensive linemen coming back, we feel like we're going to be pretty solid running the ball," coach Tony Tallent said. "That's where you're going to be able to grind out some games and things like that, so I think our passing attack will be improved but we'll be pretty-ground based."
Good news for a set of running backs that includes more than a half-dozen guys who could see playing time, according to Tallent. Leading the pack will likely be junior Gage Steele. As a sophomore, Steele was the power complement to Marty Haley, rushing for more than 500 yards and four touchdowns. This season, however, Steele will likely assume the feature role, a position he says he's ready to take on.
"I'm definitely ready to pick it up and replace what Marty left for us," Steele said, "but I'm working on that role and going to do it as best as I can."
In addition to serving one of the team's many tailbacks, Steele will also anchor a defense that features seniors Jayme Perry and Sam Eshleman. Perry was second on the team in tackles last year with 49, including registering three sacks, while Eshleman picked up three sacks of his own.
"I think after last year we made some really good strides," Tallent said. "The games that we struggled in was because we had some key people hurt, but kids have worked hard during the offseason and are working hard right now, so we want to be a better team than we were last year and we feel like we should improve."