Hawks, Wildcats to rekindle rivalry in season opener

By Brad Fauber

FRONT ROYAL — The final scores from the last four football meetings between Skyline and Warren County say plenty about the cross-town rivalry.

In those four previous meetings, which date back to the 2010 season, neither team has beaten the other by more than a field goal. In fact, the combined margin of victory over that span is just seven points, and the largest victory from either school during that stretch was Warren County’s 16-13 win over the Hawks in the finale of the 2010 regular season.

Last year, Skyline — which has won the last two meetings against the Wildcats — rallied from a 13-0 deficit with two fourth-quarter touchdowns to stun Warren County in a wild 14-13 home win to open the 2013 season.

Both schools will take the next step tonight in what has quickly become one of the most competitive high school football rivalries in the area, as Skyline travels to Warren County for a 7 p.m. contest for the 2014 season opener for both squads.

“The emotions for this game are always crazy, no matter when it is,” Hawks head coach Heath Gilbert said. “I have a hard time sleeping, especially the Warren County week and that’s never going to change. … It’s a lot of fun. It’s awesome. I look forward to it. I obviously hope we can win, it makes you feel good if you can get that one.”

The Hawks are entering the new season hoping to put the disappointment of last season behind them. Though Skyline managed that thrilling win over Warren County in week one, the Hawks struggled in 2013, going 4-7 (1-3 Northwestern District) and losing six of their final seven games including a 35-7 loss to Kettle Run in the first round of the Region 3A East playoffs.

Warren County, on the other hand, rebounded nicely from last year’s opening-week loss. The Wildcats finished last season 8-4 (5-2 Bull Run District) and reached the second round of the 3A East playoffs before being dismantled by Lafayette, 63-7, on the road.

Both teams are expecting good things this fall, and tonight’s game represents an opportunity for each to make an early statement against its rival. But both Gilbert and Warren County first-year coach Steve Crist are being cautious with their teams’ mental approaches to the game, as they are preaching to their respective squads to focus on only what they can control in order to rein in the emotions that come with playing a rival.

“It’s a big game, but it’s only one of 10 and it’s the one we’re playing this week. Now, it’d be a big game no matter when it is, but it is the opening game,” Crist said. “But again, it’s the only game we can play this week so we’re going to do whatever we can to go out and get a win.”

Crist, who served as an assistant under former Warren County head coach Tony Tallent from 2007 to 2012 before leading Manassas Park’s football program last season, enters the 2014 season with a team full of question marks. The Wildcats lost 18 seniors to graduation last year, including nearly all of their major contributors on offense, defense and special teams.

As a result, most position battles were up for grabs when the Wildcats began fall camp earlier this month, and several of those competitions hadn’t yet resulted in clear-cut starters earlier this week. Following Monday’s practice, Crist said junior Robert Rutherford and sophomore Cameron Ford were still battling for the starting quarterback job, with Crist adding that it was possible that both will play against the Hawks tonight.

Warren County will also go with a committee approach to the running back position with Joseph Rutherford, Brian Croson, Randall Harris and Will Spencer all likely to see action, Crist said.

Skyline, meanwhile, has no such question marks this season. The Hawks return nine starters each on offense and defense, including junior quarterback Corban Ruch (43 of 92, 639 yards, five TDs, six interceptions in 2013), senior running back Jerrius Baltimore (172 carries, 1,014 yards, six TDs) and senior linebacker Darryl Jordan (team-high 90 total tackles last season).

“When you play Skyline, you know it’s going to be a tough game,” Crist said. “They’re going to be well coached. They’re going to play extremely hard. It doesn’t matter what their scheme is, you know you’re going to face that. And on top of that they’ve got a good scheme on both sides of the ball.”

Skyline will continue to run its Multiple-I offense this season, and the Hawks are hoping to see improved offensive output this season with the return of Ruch, Baltimore and nearly the entire offensive line.

Crist said the key for Warren County’s defense — which doesn’t return too much varsity experience outside of senior linebacker Zach Moon (82 tackles last season) — will be the ability of each of its defenders to successfully complete their own assignments.

Though the Wildcats are introducing plenty of new faces this fall, Gilbert praised Crist’s ability to properly utilize his personnel, adding that he expects tonight’s game to continue the rivalry’s recent trend.

“This game in past has been a one-point game the last three years, so we’re not going to expect anything less than that,” Gilbert said. “It’s going to be a battle and we’re going to have to play hard.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com