By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- Last season, the Skyline Hawks enjoyed unquestionably their best football season ever under coach Heath Gilbert.
The Hawks piled up a 10-2 record which included a perfect 4-0 mark against Northwestern District rivals to claim the district title, then picked up a Group AA playoff victory before eventually falling in a rematch against Kettle Run in the second round of the Division 3 playoffs.
Skyline had plenty of momentum last year. Now the trick is to sustain it despite the loss of several key contributors to last season's success. So far, Gilbert has liked what he's seen from his squad.
"What's been great is with the offseason rules, the last couple years we've been able to practice out of season," Gilbert said. "So once our spring cycle started, we were practicing once a week on Wednesdays, which has been really good for the kids. I've had a great turnout, with my coaches being able to help and support, so we've actually been able to get some individual time with those guys to prepare them for this upcoming season."
Gilbert said Skyline established a football booster club for the first time for this season, and participation during offseason practices, for the weight program and during seven-on-seven tournaments was the best-ever for the school.
"We've had a good offseason," Gilbert said. "It's not where I want it to be, of course -- we had 103 come out, and we averaged in the 50s for the offseason program. I want that number to be 80, 90, so it's not where I want it to be but it's definitely a step forward in the right direction."
On offense, the Hawks return only four starters from last season's high-powered group. Gone is veteran starting quarterback Aaron Jeremiah, top running back Dayvon Haight, tight end Nick Helmick and top wideout Kylmen Breeden -- each a first-team all-Northwestern pick last season. In their place, Gilbert has a collection of some players with starting experience, a newcomer with real promise, and former backups making the transition to starting roles.
Running the offense at quarterback this season will likely be sophomore Corban Ruch, a transfer from Indiana. Although he has no varsity experience, Gilbert is confident Ruch can step into a starting role for the Hawks this season and lead their Pistol offense.
"Everything he's shown us so far is that he's going to be very capable," Gilbert said. "He has his own skill-set that we're very impressed with. We're in a good situation with our quarterbacks."
Gilbert can say that with some confidence, knowing he has another strong option for the role in junior Jerrius Baltimore. Last season, Baltimore put in significant time as a predominantly running quarterback for the Hawks. He did complete 4 of 7 passes for 79 yards, but was most dangerous running the ball. Baltimore was a second-team all-district pick as a running back after totaling 271 yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries.
"Jerrius can do so many things for us," Gilbert said. "He can run it, he can catch it, he can throw it. We're going to utilize him in all of those phases of the game."
Baltimore will see plenty of touches as a runner, but Skyline also has solid options in junior Hunter Partlowe and bruising fullback Gerren Butler (6-foot-2, 255 pounds) along with fellow fullback Darryl Jordan.
"We don't have a lot of depth there," Gilbert said. "It's been different, but we have a quality guy in Hunter Partlowe. He'll be our main guy. Jerrius will obviously be able to make that running back situation even better, and a big kid like Gerren Butler will get plenty of touches."
Butler has the potential to add a new element to Skyline's ground attack.
"He's dialed himself in, become more committed to the program, and I think it's shown," Gilbert said. "We're looking for him to have a huge impact. He's a huge kid."
Senior Marcus Turner (15 receptions for 199 yards, 2 TDs) headlines a relatively new group of receivers. Jamal Parker, James Clatterbuck, Jay Roy and Will Spencer are also expected to contribute as receivers.
Turner offers the best big-play potential among the wideouts, both as a vertical threat and working on the inside.
"We're going to be leaning on Marcus Turner to catch the ball," Gilbert said. "He has been great in camp, targeting him, and he's been doing everything we want him to do."
Gilbert said the tight end job is an ongoing battle, with Corvon Thomas, Nick Lehew and Antwan Swain all in the mix.
"We have skills, but we're not experienced," Gilbert said. "So we're counting on our offensive line to help carry those kids and create that time and space for them, so they can learn on the fly here."
The offensive line features three returning starters, including first-team all-Northwestern guard Travis Siever. He'll anchor a line that also welcomes back returning starters Chase Clatterbuck and Ronnie Clifton. Jacob Short and Gustavo Solis are also slated to start, and the Hawks have plenty of depth with Joe Pingley, Zack Atkins and David Heisler all options for the line.
"We have some guys with experience inside," Gilbert said. "I like that group."
Gilbert said Skyline will feature an even front defense, but won't be shy about shifting to a 3-5 against the spread or to get more speed on the field.
Only three starters are back from last year's defense, a group seemingly hard hit by the graduation losses of linebacker Zach Blair (Northwestern District Defensive Player of the Year), longtime standout defensive end Helmick, defensive lineman Chris Grady, and secondary stars Haight and Jeremiah.
"We lost a lot of guys," Gilbert said. "How are we going to respond? Are we going to be like, 'Oh, we need another year before we can compete again,' or are we going to step right back to the plate and start swinging? That's what I want these kids to do, and I think we can. We're not going to make any excuses about someone not being here. We're moving forward and this next group of guys has their chance to make their mark."
Butler is the lone returning starter at linebacker, where he'll be joined by Darryl Jordan and Bradley Carson in the middle, with a slew of options on the outside including Corvon Thomas, Alex Shaffer, Nick Lehew, Hunter Smedley, Partlowe, Will Spencer and T.J. Massie all possibilities for the Hawks.
The defensive front is a bit more settled, with Travis Siever and Ronnie Clifton both back to resume starting roles. Senior Jon Overstreet and juniors David Heisler, Robbie Oates, Jacob Short, Brandon Walters and sophomore Pingley are all slated to see time as well.
Turner, an all-district pick as an outside linebacker last year, shifts back to free safety as the Hawks look to replace four graduated all-district performers in the secondary. Senior James Clatterbuck and junior Jamal Parker are slated to start, with Tyrone Holloman and Josh Smeltzer also expected to log time in the secondary.
Evan Pavlicek, who made a school-record 25 straight point-after attempts last year, is back to lead the special teams unit.
The Hawks have to come together quickly, with the opening game coming against cross-town rival Warren County. Historically, that game was the season finale for both teams. Due to the Wildcats' move to the Bull Run District, the date had to change and Gilbert is making the best of it as a motivational tool.
"The only spot for us to play each other was now, the first game," Gilbert said. "Traditionally you'd kind of like to have your rivalry game at the end of the year, but it's good to have now, too. It's going to be exciting. It's definitely a game we want to win. It's a nice thing to start off with your rival like that, to have that in your back pocket to pull out that Warren County card. It's like, 'Hey, you think the boys across the way aren't working hard right now? You better get your butt going.'"
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>