By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- The season is starting early for Randolph-Macon Academy's football team.
For the first time since 2007, the Yellow Jackets are playing a full 10-game schedule after competing with an annual nine-game slate for the past five seasons. That means R-MA will open earlier than usual -- this season, the Yellow Jackets' season opener is at home against visiting Brunswick Academy at 4 p.m. on Saturday.
Sullivan has noticed an extra pep in the step of his players during preseason practices, and he thinks he knows the reason.
"As we've progressed, it just gives the kids a little more motivation to look forward to a game instead of a scrimmage," Sullivan said. "A scrimmage sort of becomes a drag to them. It sort of lets us refocus them halfway through camp."
Sullivan is confident his team is ready to handle the extra game -- one that counts, instead of another scrimmage.
"We're fine," Sullivan said. "It creates a sense of urgency with the kids. It gets them to buy in a little quicker."
The Yellow Jackets, coming off a 4-5 season that included a 3-1 mark in the newly-formed Patriot Conference, open conference play in Week 4 this season when they host defending Patriot champion Fredericksburg Christian.
"I'm excited -- we get the season going sooner," R-MA senior Kevin Slaton said. "I really can't complain about that -- the sooner, the better. I think we're ready for it."
With a solid core of experience to build around, Sullivan thinks the Yellow Jackets are ready to take the next step. Five R-MA players -- Slaton, Jonathan Moore, Tyler Vaughan, David Lee and Emmanuel Arellano -- are four-year varsity players, and the Yellow Jackets have even more three-year players this season.
"We've got a great group of leaders," Sullivan said. "There's 10, 12 guys I have no problem with them going out for the coin toss. They're special kids. They lead every day, not just at football practice, but in everything we do here. They're going to be important in that facet."
Slaton, a four-year starter slated to play at halfback on offense and defensive back on defense, is hoping to make this final season under Sullivan his best yet. Slaton has been attending R-MA since seventh grade, so this marks his sixth season playing football as a Yellow Jacket.
"It's flown by, but I've enjoyed every minute of it," Slaton said. "Every year I've matured and got better."
NICE NICKNAME: Senior Carson Holder looks every bit a football player. The native of Brooklyn, N.Y., stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 205 pounds. That creates real headaches for opposing defenses when he lines up at wide receiver. That size also earned Holder a nickname -- "Megatron" -- from his teammates for his resemblance to Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
"They gave me that last year," Holder said. "I guess it's just the Calvin Johnson look, and I just went with it. Why not?"
Holder, who also starts on the defensive line, hopes to put up more Megatron-like numbers this season. Last year, Holder mainly blocked for R-MA's predominantly run-based offense. This season, Sullivan said he's looking to add a bit more passing to the attack.
"We're hoping to utilize Carson and get the ball in more peoples' hands," Sullivan said. "We want to become more diverse, offensively. We thought we had a great running game last year, but we definitely needed to diversify."
Holder could be the biggest beneficiary of R-MA's "Pistol" element to the traditional wing-T offense this season. That has him even more excited to line up for Saturday's season opener.
"I like playing both, but I like playing the offensive side," Holder said. "I feel like I excel on the defensive side, too, but my passion is wide receiver."
"I'm really excited to get the season started, see where we go and see where it takes us."
DOUBLE DUTY: Already a busy man last season, R-MA's Ben Gillis could soon be pulling even more duty for the Yellow Jackets.
Gillis was a multi-sport athlete for R-MA last year, but his sports both came during the same season as he split his time between soccer practice and the football field where he served as the team's place-kicker. Despite having never kicked before last season, Gillis earned all-Patriot Conference honors with his steady production (he made 24-of-26 extra-point attempts and two field goals last year).
"He's got the leg strength and the foot, it's just a matter of him getting comfortable with the snaps, the hold, and getting the proper steps that he likes," Sullivan said. "He does everything a little bit different, but as long as they're going through the uprights we're happy."
Sullivan said Gillis was a "weapon" on kickoffs as well, since he had the accuracy to spot his kicks away from dangerous returners.
Sullivan is hoping that accuracy can translate to the punting game, where Gillis is battling to win the starting spot this season.
"It's Ben's to lose, let's just say that," Sullivan said. "He's doing a good job. He's got a powerful leg. He's an extremely intelligent kid. He's just the type of kid you want to coach."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>