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Wildcats clinch first VHSL playoff berth

By Ben Brooks

FRONT ROYAl -- If there was any doubt about Warren County making the school's first Virginia High School League football postseason appearance, the Wildcats put that to rest Friday night.

Behind a career-high night from junior running back Gage Steele, Warren County rolled to a 34-17 Evergreen District victory over Kettle Run on a brisk night in Front Royal. Steele rambled for a season-best 301 yards on 26 carries and scored four touchdowns as the Wildcats continued to take aim not only at the playoffs but a possible first-round home game.

"It's just awesome," said Steele, who had 181 of those yards in the first half. "But we're not going to let this get to us. We just want to keep going and get higher up in the playoffs."

Warren County entered Friday's game ranked No. 3 in the Region II Division 3 power ratings and close out the regular season next week against rival Skyline. The top eight teams qualify for the regional playoff teams.

It didn't take long for the Wildcats (6-3, 2-2) to take control Friday. Steele scored from 19 yards out on the game's fourth play. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder had 63 rushing yards on the 66-yard drive, a sign of things to come.

"We knew there would be holes if we hit them right and blocked them right," Steele said. "My line and my receivers, they all make it so easy for me. They made it so I could do that tonight."

Steele added a pair of 1-yard runs in the second quarter to stake the Wildcats to a 21-3 halftime advantage. His four scores put him at 20 touchdowns this season.

"He's a great back and runs hard," Warren County coach Tony Tallent said. "But he'll be the first to admit that without the blocking from the line he doesn't have all those yards."

After both offenses stalled in a scoreless third quarter, things picked up in the fourth. The teams each scored two touchdowns in the final 6 1/2 minutes, including Steele's 50-yard run. It was set up when the Wildcats recovered an on-side kick following Josh Tapscott's 3-yard touchdown run that cut Kettle Run's deficit to 21-10.

Another late Cougar touchdown made it a 10-point game (27-17), but Warren County answered with a big play on special teams. Damien Wright scooped up another on-side kick perfectly in stride and raced 45 yards for the clinching score.

"What came through tonight for us big-time was our special teams play," Tallent said. "We got the blocked punt early on, even though it didn't lead to a score, we covered kickoffs well, and Damien's play was huge, especially when they started to gain some momentum."

Defensively, Warren County limited Kettle Run (3-6, 0-3) to 61 yards on the ground, recovered three fumbles, and hurried Cougars quarterback Mac Graham all night. The Wildcats recorded six sacks, two each from Sam Eshleman and area sack leader Jayme Perry.

"This is the greatest thing I could ask for in my senior year," Eshleman said. "To be the first senior class to get to go to the playoffs is amazing. It makes me so proud to be playing with this great group of guys and coaches."

Though spending much of his time trying to avoid Warren County's rush, Graham was a bright spot for the Cougars. He completed 12 of 14 passes for 228 yards and had a rushing touchdown.


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