By Greg Brill - firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Though he has had only three starts, Skyline senior Derek Helsley seems to have this quarterback thing figured out.
Helsley was slinging the football all over the field Friday night at Brentsville's expense. Whether it was swing passes, slants, short outs, or fades down the sideline, Helsley had an uncanny knack for finding his receivers.
After passing for 355 yards and three touchdowns in the Hawks' 26-7 win, it's a safe bet Helsley is on the radar.
"It really started with the offensive line -- they were blocking amazing tonight," said Helsley, who completed 18 of 35 passes. "I had a good amount of time to make my reads, then the receivers made a lot of big plays. There was a lot of yards after the catch. They were on top of it tonight."
Classmate Travis Custer was Helsley's favorite target out of the backfield, using his speed to gain space and haul in five catches for 200 yards.
No reception -- at least for redemption's sake -- was bigger for Custer than the one he made after a rare mistake he made just moments before had allowed the Tigers (1-2) to get their only score.
On the first play of Skyline's first offensive series of the second half, Custer let a snap sail through his hands and roll into the Hawks' end zone. Brentsville's Anthony Blair recovered for a touchdown to send the Tigers up 7-6.
On Skyline's second play back after the turnover, Helsley's pass to midfield was a bit underthrown. Brentsville had two defensive backs in the area, but Custer came back and made the catch. Custer shot up the middle before turning down the far sideline to complete the 76-yard run-and-catch for a touchdown with 9:20 left in the third quarter.
"I was real excited I was able to come back [and score the touchdown]," Custer said. "Me and Derek have had great chemistry ever since we were 8 years old. We were able to find each other a couple times tonight to help our team to a big victory."
Said Helsley: "I did feel good for [Custer]. I knew he was ready to prove himself."
Of course, even underthrown passes turned into good things for Helsley.
A backup to Josiah Patrick (who has since transferred and is now the starter at Handley) in 2009, Helsley has been a quick study, which allows the Hawks (2-1) to be even more dangerous on offense.
Last week, it was Custer who carried the offense with his 168 rushing yards in a loss at Fauquier. This week, it was Helsley. In his first start on Sept. 3, Helsley threw for over 250 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-0 win at Strasburg. Helsley didn't have big offensive numbers last week, but he came right back and had what is believed to be a Skyline single-game record for passing yards.
With two-way standout lineman Luke Pingley resting a sore knee, Skyline coach Heath Gilbert was happy Helsley kept his poise and made positive plays.
"What we're finding out is -- especially with Luke not being in there -- that we have to throw the ball a little bit more until we get [Pingley] back and become a little more balanced," Gilbert said. "We have confidence in Derek and he's showing us he can make plays with the football. I'm real proud of him and the receiver core."
The only score of the first half came late in the first quarter on Helsley's 10-yard scoring strike to sure-handed Eli McEathron (six catches, 74 yards) in the left corner of the end zone for a 6-0 lead.
Helsley also led Skyline on a 60-yard march late in the third quarter. The big play of the drive was a 43-yard pass from Helsley to Jonta Baltimore (five catches, 68 yards). The drive was capped by Helsley's easy, 8-yard strike to a wide-open Will Walraven.
"I mean, we've got so many great receivers that we can spread the ball out to anybody," Custer said. "It's hard for a lot of teams to cover that. Derek threw some great balls and the line did their job blocking. We gave him some time to make some beautiful passes."
The Hawks got one more late score in the third quarter on Kareem Caison's 11-yard run for a 26-7 lead. The last score was set up when the Hawks recovered a squib kick.
Almost lost in all of Helsley's wizardry through the air was an outstanding effort by the Hawks on defense.
Skyline forced five turnovers and defensive back Kwaunte' Stewart made two fourth-quarter interceptions, including one at the goal line, to help the Hawks salt the game away.
"I was just checking my reads and as soon as I saw the quarterback drop his shoulder, I just read on the ball," said Stewart, who now has three interceptions on the season. "I think we were more focused as a team this week and had better open-field tackling, too. That was huge for us."
It was the second time in three games Skyline's defense did not allow a touchdown. The Hawks gave up 32 points in last week's loss at Fauquier.
"Defensively, we stepped it up," said Custer, who forced and recovered a second-quarter fumble by Brentsville. "We just told ourselves on defense if we hold teams and give our offense a chance, maybe we can still upset some teams this year."
Helsley's arm is giving Skyline plenty of chances to win.