By Jeff Nations
STEPHENS CITY -- A spot in the state championship game tends to have an immediate and lasting impact on a football program.
On the one hand, that proven success often breeds a high degree of confidence and even an expectation of repeating the same feat. At the same time, the inevitable graduation losses of key performers from an ultra-successful team can be magnified within the locker room.
Sherando, which reached the Group 4A state championship game last year, could be in that very quandary right now -- or not. In preseason practice, at least, the Warriors sounded exactly like previous teams.
Same approach, same message it seems in Stephens City. The pressure is there, just not necessarily where you'd expect it. Getting back to the title game would be great, winning it even better, but that's not how the Warriors measure their growth.
"You should not focus on the end goal," Warriors offensive lineman Christian Farris said. "You should focus on each individual step along the way. I don't feel there's a requirement that we have to go all the way back up to states, but I do feel we have the potential to do anything that we set our minds to wanting to do."
Sherando coach Bill Hall has been preaching that step-by-step process for years, and it works.
"I think it's all on how you view it," Hall said. "We painted a very clear picture to these guys. That was then, and this is now. What we did last year will not earn us one victory this year, and I think they realize that. Your prior success can sometimes put undue pressure on them, but what we try to do is wipe all that stuff and focus on what we can control."
Should the Warriors match or even surpass what they accomplished last season, they'll have to do it with a sizable contingent of new faces in the starting lineup. Sherando returns seven starters on defense and five on offense from last season's squad.
Hall is counting on another solid effort on defense, where the Warriors might tinker a bit with more multiple looks thanks to an influx of viable linebackers. Sherando traditionally runs a 4-3 base look, but all those linebackers -- eight could play there this season -- could necessitate some tweaks based on matchups.
The defensive line should still be a strength, with plenty of experience back in returning starters Matt VanShufflin (DE), Ben Avery (DT) and Kyle Warren (DE), plus the return of Brogan McPartland (DE), who missed all last season with a broken leg. Warren will shift to the inside, giving the Warriors four tough linemen up front and possibly forming an even better group than last year.
"Our d-line is looking strong," VanShufflin said. "Inside the box we have a lot of experience, a lot of guys coming back who know what they're doing. We play hard football. We get after it on defense."
The linebacking corps should be a question mark, considering the graduation losses of former starters George Aston (now at Pittsburgh), Daniel Eppard and Joe Daley.
Hall said rising sophomore Dylan Rivers, who backed up Eppard last year, is already drawing interest from ACC and Big 10 programs. Tyler Tinsman also saw time as a reserve last year, and John Doleman was a part-time starter. The Warriors will also get help from a pair of transfers who started at linebacker last year in Mitchell Shiley (Millbrook) and Trent McCarty (James Wood). Juniors David Eppard and Garrett Poole should also factor at linebacker.
The secondary is in good shape with returning two-year starting safety Rhett Morris and two-year starting cornerback Josh Ojo anchoring that group. Adam Whitacre and Cordell Peterson could both see time at strong safety, while Zach Wagner and Quentin Rohrbaugh were battling for the other starting corner job.
The offense gets a facelift following the graduation losses of quarterback Reid Entsminger (now playing at Lamar) and Aston. The backfield will count on another big season from tailback LeeQuan Johnson Jr., who ran for more than 1,000 yards last season. Varsity newcomer Peterson, just a sophomore, has "huge upside" in Hall's estimation and could also get significant carries at tailback. Replacing the bruising Aston, who scored 24 touchdowns last year at fullback, could be tough. John Doleman saw time there last year, and Shiley did the same at Millbrook. David Eppard could also win the job.
Entsminger, a dynamic runner in his own right last year with 873 rushing yards, could also be a tricky vacancy to fill. Hall thinks rising junior Pat Minteer will do just fine.
"His fundamentals are good," Hall said of Minteer, the son of Sherando assistant coach John Minteer.
Ojo, who backed up Entsminger last year, will likely reprise that role as a dangerous running threat at quarterback. Ojo will likely be a jack-of-all trades, predominantly seeing time at slot receiver and possibly at running back.
Ojo, Adam Whitacre, Morris and Seth Smith should see time at the receiving spots, with Rivers a possibility at both wideout and tight end. McPartland is projected to start at tight end. Morris also handled kicking and punting duties last year.
The offensive line gets a complete makeover, with the lone returning starter in Farris shifting from tackle to center. McCarty slides into on guard spot, and Kyle Warren is the likely starting right tackle.