By Jeff Nations
STEPHENS CITY -- The task seems simple enough for Sherando's defense.
Stop the run, and you likely stop Courtland in tonight's Class 4A North regional semifinal football playoff matchup at Sherando's Arrowhead Stadium.
The visiting Cougars have mostly dispensed with the notion of a balanced offense, instead relying on a trio of running backs out of its wing-T offense. Courtland's big three -- fullback Anton Jenkins (1,199 rushing yards, 25 touchdowns), running back Victor Greene (1,073 yards, 13 TDs) and running back George Cheetham (1,027 yards, 10 TDs) -- will be the focal point of a Warriors defense that has been plenty effective in stopping the run this season.
"They run the ball 80, 90 percent of the time -- they hardly ever pass," Sherando senior linebacker George Aston said. "They like to run a lot of trap game, up the middle and a sweep here and there. All we have to do is shut the middle down and then if they try to run outside ... a lot of teams haven't had a lot of success running the ball to the outside against us. We look forward to the challenge."
Top-seeded Sherando (11-1) has been up for challenges all season as they pursue the school's first-ever state championship in football. The Warriors are three-time state runners-up (1995, 1996, 2007) when they played in the old Group AA, Division 4 bracket. With the other No. 1 seed in Class 4A losing last week -- Phoebus dropped a 17-14 decision to No. 9 seed King's Fork in the 4A South quarterfinals -- Sherando looks in prime position to contend for that first championship.
To get to that championship game, though, Sherando still has to win twice more and tonight's matchup against Courtland is one of them.
Sherando coach Bill Hall said he expects tonight's game to be classic trench warfare, with line play factoring perhaps even more than usual in the outcome.
"They're a very good offensive team that executes at a high level," Hall said. "We're a pretty good defensive team that's very fundamental and does a good job of executing our schemes."
Last week's 34-12 second-round playoff victory over Liberty showed just how tough the Warriors can be on defense. Sherando allowed just 197 yards of total offense and 10 first downs, and both touchdowns came in the fourth quarter after Sherando scored 34 unanswered points.
The Warriors also forced a pair of turnovers and generally made life uncomfortable for Liberty's offense all night.
A closer comparison to Courtland (10-2) might be Amherst County, another wing-T team that Sherando handled 49-15 in the opening round of the playoffs two weeks ago. Amherst's wing-T managed just 99 yards against Sherando.
"They run it better than Amherst," Sherando senior quarterback/strong safety Reid Entsminger said of Courtland. "Amherst had a little twist to it, but it's basically the same thing."
And although the Cougars have leaned heavily on the run game this season, it's not as if they're incapable of throwing the ball. Quarterback Jabari Allen has decent passing numbers (34 of 86 for 792 yards, 10 TDs) with his favorite target being wide receiver Kyle Talley (15 catches, 455 yards 6 TDs).
Still, if Courtland -- winners of 10 straight after opening the season 0-2 -- is passing the ball with any regularity, that should be good news for the Warriors.
"Their comfort zone is running the ball," Hall said. "They want to stay on the field, keep moving the chains. Our challenge is to stop them and put them in some of those third-and-long situations."
Defensively, Courtland has posted two shutouts this season but engaged in a bit of a shootout in last week's 56-34 win over George Washington. Few teams have had much luck in slowing Sherando's balanced attack. The Warriors are averaging 37.5 points per game this season, and they've shown plenty of ability to move the ball either through the running game or via the pass.
Junior running back LeeQuan Johnson Jr. lead Sherando's potent rushing attack with 1,112 yards and 15 touchdowns. Entsminger, the Northwestern District's Offensive Player of the Year, is dangerous as a runner (697 yards, 5 TDs) or passer (101 of 172 passing for 1,948 yards and 19 TDs). Aston, the lynchpin of Sherando's defense, is more than just a short-yardage specialist as a running back (97 carries, 643 yards, 20 TDs).
Daniel Eppard has had back-to-back standout games as a wide receiver for Sherando. Last week against Liberty, he hauled in five passed for 150 yards and a score. The Warriors also will look to leading receiver Adam Whitacre (25 catches, 507 yards, 7 TDs) if the Cougars attempt to stack the box and stop the run.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>