Playoff hopes at stake for Rams, Wildcats

By Brad Fauber

There will be plenty of high school football playoff implications when Warren County travels to take on Strasburg tonight.

Both coaching staffs have avoided talking too much about it with their players, but both the Wildcats and the Rams are well aware of what’s at stake when the two teams kick off at Ram Stadium at 7:30 p.m.

Warren County, which lost its first five games of the season, suddenly finds itself in the playoff picture after three straight wins. The Wildcats are 15th in the latest Virginia High School League playoff power ratings for the 3A East region (the top 16 teams in each region are awarded playoff spots) with two regular season games remaining.

Strasburg is in a much firmer position in the 2A East playoff race — the Rams are ninth in the power rankings — but needs to jump ahead at least one more spot over the next two games to host a playoff game in the first round.

“We don’t talk about it much as players. But we know about it,” Rams senior tight end/defensive end Ryan Smoot said of tonight’s playoff implications. “I think at this point in the season if you’re not checking it, you’re kind of fooling yourself a little bit.”

The Rams appear to be in good shape to reach the playoffs after missing out on the postseason a year ago, but Warren County will need to continue its recent hot streak in order to keep its playoff streak alive.

The Wildcats have made the playoffs in each of the last four seasons and don’t have much room for error. Warren County senior linebacker Zach Moon said the Wildcats are focused on keeping that winning tradition alive.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” Moon said. “Even the coaches talk about it at practice because it’s definitely a tradition that’s been built and if we’re the first ones to break it, that’s definitely not a good thing. There’s pressure, but I think we can make it to the playoffs.”

Both Strasburg (5-3, 4-1 Bull Run) and Warren County (3-5, 3-2) come into tonight’s game carrying notable winning streaks. The Rams, who are still very much alive in the Bull Run District championship race, have won four straight games, while the Wildcats are seeking their fourth straight victory tonight.

“I think you look at a team that’s much improved and gaining a little confidence themselves,” Strasburg coach Mark Roller said of Warren County. “Coach [Steve] Crist, he’s not new to Warren County, but he’s a new coach for them. It always takes a little time for those kids to buy into what you want to do and I think he’s done that and those kids are responding now to him. … That’s the thing you want to do at this point in the season, is be playing good ball.”

The Wildcats have improved dramatically on both sides of the football during its current win streak. Warren County is averaging just 11.5 points while allowing 23.3 points per game this season, but the Wildcats are averaging 22.3 points and allowing 9 points over their last three games.

Both Crist and Moon said Warren County’s improvement has started in practice, and Moon added that the Wildcats’ offense has made tremendous strides since the beginning of the season and has taken some of the pressure off the defense.

“Offensively we’re practicing better and it’s leading to better production,” Crist said. “It sounds like coach speak but you do kind of play how you practice, and for the last four weeks we’ve had some really good practices.”

Warren County’s offense has developed some stability at quarterback, as junior Robert Rutherford has taken hold of the starting job. Rutherford, who has completed 51 of 86 passes for 520 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions while rushing for 136 yards and a score, rotated with sophomore Cameron Ford in the season opener and served as Ford’s backup for a couple games afterward before earning the starting job.

Running back Joseph Rutherford leads Warren County’s rushing attack, as he’s carried 64 times for 350 yards and a touchdown.

“I think they’re executing better on offense and they’re so big up front — so much bigger than we are — that I think that poses a problem to us,” Roller said. “I think they’ve switched some things around personnel-wise since the beginning of the season and certainly I don’t know the circumstances to that but that might have had some bearing on things.”

Strasburg has rebounded from its own slow start to the season and is now in second place in the Bull Run behind unbeaten Clarke County. The Rams are coming off a 36-30 win at Madison County last Friday.

“We’ve turned things around,” Smoot said. “I think our schedule kind of dictated that a little bit. We knew the beginning of the year was going to be a little tougher but real credit to what we’ve done. We’ve been able to stay on track, keep coming in here and working hard. It’s showed the last five games, really.”

Roller said Strasburg’s defense, which is allowing 25 points per game, is still surrendering too many big plays, but he added that the Rams as a team have been able to catch some breaks and are now “starting to gel together and do their responsibilities.”

Strasburg’s offense has been rolling recently, topping 30 points in every game during its four-game win streak.

The passing game continues to flourish for the Rams, as senior quarterback Mark Smoot passed for 275 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s win and now has thrown for over 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns this season.

Strasburg senior running back Colton Funk has provided a nice complement to the Rams’ passing game, rushing for nearly 900 yards and eight touchdowns so far this season.

“It’s not as if they don’t run the ball and don’t run it effectively, so you can’t get 100 percent caught up in ‘we just have to stop the pass,'” Crist said. “We’ve got to communicate, make sure we’re all on the same page, all 11 of us. That’s going to be huge because if you’re not, [Mark Smoot’s] going to find the guy that’s open and exploit your mistakes.”

Strasburg hasn’t beaten Warren County since 2007, and the Rams are 0-4 against the Wildcats during that span.

“We haven’t beaten them for a while so it will be a little more interesting for our kids,” Roller said. “I’m not sure when’s the last time we’ve beaten Warren County so it’ll be a good game. And there’s a lot at stake. They’re in the playoff run, also, so their kids are going to be up and excited for it. Our kids are trying to host and their kids are trying to get in so it ought to be a good football game.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com