Hawks ready for district challenge from Judges

By Tommy Keeler Jr.

FRONT ROYAL — Skyline has a three-game winning streak, but head football coach Heath Gilbert understands that the next two games on the schedule are a daunting task.

The Hawks host Handley tonight at 7 p.m., and finish their regular season next week at Sherando, both of which are Northwestern District contests.

“Handley’s a quality program. I feel like those guys and teams like Sherando are at another level in the district in this area,” Gilbert said. “We want to be a team that’s considered in that area, too, and there’s only one way to get to that, and it’s to compete with them and play hard. We understand the challenge that is ahead of us. We know they’re a really quality football team, and we have all the respect in the world for them.”

The Hawks have all the reason in the world to feel confident heading onto tonight’s game. Skyline has won five of its last six games, with the only loss during that stretch coming to a very tough Kettle Run squad. The Hawks are 6-2, and are currently ranked seventh in the Group 3A East power rankings.

Skyline’s defense has been the biggest component to the team’s success this year. The Hawks are allowing only 15.3 points and only 169.6 yards per game.

“Our defense has held it together,” Skyline senior defensive back/wide receiver Jamal Parker said. “In games like Millbrook when you hold a team to three points, even though our offense only scored one touchdown, you should never lose a game when you can hold a team to three points. So if our defense can come out and hold them, then we should be able to make things happen on offense at least enough to win the game.”

Skyline’s defense will face quite a challenge this week against a high-powered Handley offense. The Judges (3-4, 0-1) are led by senior quarterback Will Dearing and wide receivers Justin Washington and Daunte Mauck. Washington just came back recently from an injury, but the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder is a matchup problem for any team. Washington has already received a scholarship offer from Delaware.

Parker said he is looking forward to the challenge of going up against some talented Handley receivers.

“Last year I played a guy like Washington, Kendall Smith, from Washington High School, and I didn’t do as well as I think could have,” Parker said. “So I’m going to try to come out here and do better.”

Handley also has a solid running game led by D.J. Frisby, and a big offensive line. Getting a good pass rush will be a key factor for Skyline on defense.

“The pass rush is definitely going to be important, because our defensive backs are going to have a challenging game with the receivers,” Skyline senior defensive lineman Ronnie Clifton said. “It helps them a lot if we get a good push on the defensive line. So it’s a must-have.”

The Hawks are averaging 368 yards per game, and they’re doing it with a very balanced offense. Skyline has rushed for 1,284 yards, and thrown for 1,298 yards. The Hawks have ran and passed for more than 200 yards as a team each of the last two weeks.

Skyline quarterback Corban Ruch went 23-for-28 passing last week in a dominant victory over James Wood. Ruch said his receivers have played a big part in his success throwing the football this year.

“They all run great routes. They get open and they make great plays for me,” Ruch said. “I can throw it to anyone and have faith they can make a play. … My line has been amazing, outstanding this year.”

Senior Jerrius Baltimore leads the Hawks in rushing with 705 yards, but Ruch has ran for 273 yards, most of it coming in the last few weeks on read-option plays.

“That helps against elite defenses,” Gilbert said. “When you have that ‘OK, is it going to be Jerrius keeping the ball or is it Corban?’ Or are we throwing it out to our perimeter guys, are we throwing it down the field? So all those pieces together make us a more dangerous offense, and we need that if we’re going to compete against teams like Handley and Sherando.”

The Hawks have basically clinched a playoff spot, but they still have a lot to play for in the next two weeks. Skyline could get a home game in the first round of the playoffs, but probably needs to win at least one game to secure it.

To add to the motivation this week, it is Senior Night for the Hawks.

“As seniors we all really want to win for our Senior Night,” Parker said. “I’ve been playing here four years, and this is our big day. We want to be able to get victory on [Senior Night].”

The Judges are coming off a 43-29 loss to Sherando, in which Handley led 29-13 late in the third quarter.

Gilbert said the Hawks realize they have to play even better than they’ve been playing when they face Handley and Sherando the next two weeks.

“Like I said before, no disrespect to anybody we’ve played before. What we played the last three games and what we’re about to play the next two games are on a different level,” Gilbert said. “We’re going to have to elevate our level. We’re somewhere in between. Are we closer to that elite level? Or are we closer to where we just came from? We got to find out. We’re hoping we’re closer to the elite level for sure, but we’ve got to prove it on the field.”

Parker said he feels like the Hawks are ready to show that they are right there with Handley and Sherando.

“I think we’ve set ourselves up for it,” Parker said. “We’ve got a little winning streak going. We’re feeling good, but not cocky — we’re ready. We respect the opponent. We know that we’re going to have to play really well to win.”

Contact staff writer Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or tkeeler@nvdaily.com