By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- Judging strictly by the Class 3A East state playoff seedings, Warren County's football team might be better off saving the time -- not to mention gas -- by skipping the long bus ride down to Williamsburg for tonight's second-round matchup.
After all, the eighth-seeded Wildcats are certainly big-time underdogs as they prepare to take on No. 1 seed Lafayette in tonight's 7 p.m. game. Warren County's players won't deny that, but that doesn't mean they don't believe -- expect, even -- that they'll be heading home late tonight with another victory and another week of practice ahead to prepare for the next opponent.
"Yeah, they look like a No. 1 seed," Warren County senior wide receiver/cornerback Jontae Rollins said. "They're disciplined, very intelligent, great technique -- they're not a team to play around with, so I feel like this is going to be the week, biggest game of the year without a doubt. It's the second round of the playoffs, but seeing them and seeing us do what we can do .... I think it'll be tough, but I feel like if we become one team like we always do we'll be perfectly fine."
Warren County (8-3) gained some serious momentum with last week's 35-23 win over No. 9 seed Park View (South Hill) in the opening round of the playoffs, and the Wildcats did it with their characteristic big-play offense and opportunistic defense which forced five turnovers. Casey Stewart had a huge impact for Warren County, hauling in an 80-yard touchdown pass from Austen Butler and adding a 91-yard interception return for another score.
Stewart is one of the numerous Wildcats looking to extend their senior seasons even longer tonight.
"There's a lot of seniors on this team, but they were first-year starting seniors," Warren County coach Tony Tallent said. "They're getting to where now the gelling and the knowing each other is really starting to show through."
The challenge presented by Lafayette (11-0) is very real. The Rams demolished No. 16 seed Spotsylvania 57-0 in last week's first-round playoff game. Lafayette's wing-T offense piled up 384 rushing yards in the win, led by Jahlil Green's 187-yard, four-touchdown night.
Defensively, the Rams have been dominant all season. Lafayette has given up more than 20 points just once, in a 42-21 win over Grafton back in September, and is allowing an average of just nine points per game while scoring at a 47-point per game clip.
"You can tell they've gone deep in the playoffs for multiple years because you can tell their kids have had those extra practices," Tallent said. "I think that's something that's starting to make our program better is that we're at least getting a week or two of extra practices because we're making the playoffs consistently. That adds up over time."
Warren County senior defensive lineman/running back Josh Newman isn't taking the Rams lightly, but he's not about to write off the Wildcats, either.
"It's all about mind-set, really," Newman said. "It's all about hope. Obviously, we're not favored to win. But what is every Cinderella story made of? A giant upset, you know, and that can't happen without the hope. So really, it's coming into the week, working on a game plan, executing the way we always do, and going in there believing we can do that. Because without that, it's not going to happen."
Warren County's best hopes might rest with senior running back Demetrus Yates, the area's second-leading rusher with 1,463 yards and 13 touchdowns. Last week against Park View, Yates ripped off 146 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
Yates is the lightning in the Wildcats' backfield, but Kristian Deal (296 rushing yards, 5 TDs) and Newman (451 rushing yards, 5 TDs) also have big-play ability in addition to the power to pick up tough yards inside.
It's not as if Warren County is one-dimensional, though. Quarterback Austen Butler has passed for 1,096 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. Rollins (12 catches, 618 yards, 7 TDs) and Stewart (26 catches, 641 yards, 5 TDs) are both dangerous receivers the Rams will have to contend with tonight.
Rollins is looking forward to getting the Rams' best shot, and taking his own tonight.
"It's great knowing you're one of the teams in the state that still has your shoulder pads on, coming out there every week practicing," Rollins said. "As a senior, we all understand that it's win or never play again for some of us. Just going out there and doing what we do on Friday nights is amazing."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>