By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- This is different.
That's about the only point all parties involved can unequivocally agree on heading into tonight's season-opening high school football matchup between cross-town rivals Skyline and Warren County.
For years, this annual matchup has been a regular-season clincher. Not this year, not with the newly-redrawn Virginia High School League classification system that shifted divisions and districts -- what's left of them -- into largely unfamiliar territory. Warren County moved from the Evergreen District to the Bull Run, where the Wildcats will mostly face smaller schools. Skyline is still in the Northwestern District, and will mostly face larger schools. Both are members of the new 3A-East, Conference 28. And that's what really matters.
Warren County's new Bull Run commitments limited the available dates for playing Skyline, which prompted moving the date. No one seems to agree on whether or not that's a good thing, even teammates.
"I actually liked it at the end of the season better," Warren County junior lineman Josh Mallicoat said. "There's more suspense built up."
"I actually like playing them first," Wildcats senior wide receiver/defensive back Jontae Rollins countered. "If we win, it sets the tone for us and looking at our schedule, Skyline is definitely one our tougher opponents. If we beat them, that starts off our season pretty well."
That works both ways, of course, as this matchup in many ways is just as important as a benchmark and momentum-booster as last year's thriller. Skyline won that one, 14-12, and went on to win a playoff game. The victory boosted Skyline's lead in the all-time series to 5-3 and ended the Wildcats' two-year reign as tops in the county.
Last year, both teams entered that highly-anticipated game with identical 8-1 records. They're identical this year, too, both at 0-0. Hawks coach Heath Gilbert, who was the head coach at Warren County before moving to Skyline when that school opened in 2007, is glad to see both schools producing thriving football programs.
"It's a big deal for us here in Front Royal," Gilbert said. "It makes me really proud because when I got here 16 years ago, it was tough. It was tough to fill a team and to be competitive. So it really makes you proud to see that the two teams can really be successful -- to come from there to where before we split, to have some winning seasons [at Warren County], and then after we split [Warren County coach] Tony [Tallent] and his staff have done a great job over there, and we've got it going over here."
Building on that success starts Friday night, and both squads are facing plenty of unknowns heading into the 7 p.m. matchup at Skyline. Nearly all the skill-position players on both teams -- starting quarterbacks, leading running backs, top wide receivers -- are largely new to starting roles this season.
Other than past experience and a some scrimmage film, both squads have little to go on to prepare.
"We don't know a whole lot, obviously," Gilbert said. "We have two scrimmage films. You know names, you've seen the kids playing other sports because they're involved in other programs over there. It's going to be exciting to see what both groups of kids are able to do, who's going to be able to step up in a big game because really, that's what's it's going to come down to because everyone's fresh and new in the skill department."
Tallent expects a typically physical Skyline squad.
"They're big up front and it looks like they've got a lot of kids out there," Tallent said. "Just like us in the past, they've benefited from getting an extra week or two of practice. I think their kids are excited, just like ours have been for the past three years, coming off a playoff win and playoff appearance. Your program feels like it's in the right direction and you want to keep that momentum going."
Skyline senior two-way lineman Travis Siever is looking forward to playing in front of a huge crowd tonight.
"It's going to be a lot of fun," Siever said. "The crowd's going to be big. The town's going to come out and see what the teams are going to be like this year, see where the talent's at and how it's going to go."
Despite the date change, Tallent expects tonight's matchup to be just as intense as any other time his Wildcats have tangled with the Hawks.
"It's always going to be a big game, no matter when it is," Tallent said. "Where it is, the opener, I think it allows more people to come and be there. It's the way you like to start off the season, with a great rivalry game. I think both teams are really looking forward to it."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>