Rested Hawks ready for Blue Devils
FRONT ROYAL — Skyline is in a unique situation heading into Saturday’s Region 3A East first-round playoff game against Hopewell.
The Hawks had their scheduled bye week last week, meaning that while most teams were playing their regular-season finales, Skyline was balancing rest and weight-room workouts while re-energizing for the start of the postseason.
The result, head coach Heath Gilbert said on Tuesday, has been some added vigor and competitiveness on the practice field as the No. 8 Hawks prepare to host the ninth-seeded Blue Devils in Saturday’s 2 p.m. contest.
“They understand this is it, there’s no next week. You win and you continue. If not, then it’s over,” Gilbert said. “We’re holding onto these guys as tight as we can. We don’t want to let 2014 go. We’re going to fight as hard as we can to keep this thing going.”
Skyline (7-3) ended its regular season with a 28-19 loss to Northwestern District champion Sherando on Oct. 31, but the loss didn’t negate the vast improvement the Hawks have made from their disappointing 4-7 season a year ago.
Benefiting from what Gilbert called a stronger “family” atmosphere, the Hawks are back in the playoffs for the third straight season and are hosting a first-round game for the second time in that span.
“We didn’t want just to be in the playoffs. With how many teams that get in, we felt it would really be a letdown if we didn’t,” Gilbert said. “But to host, that second piece was important to us and we were just able to slip in there, but we’ll take it.”
Though Hopewell enters Saturday’s game with a 4-6 record, the Blue Devils played eight of their 10 games against schools in higher classifications, including four from the 4A level, three from 5A and one from 6A. Of those eight teams, six made the playoffs in their respective regions this season.
Hopewell boasts two victories over 4A competition this fall with wins over Grafton and Powhatan, both playoff teams. The Blue Devils also played competitively with defending 4A state champion Dinwiddie on Oct. 24 before the Generals rallied for a 28-17 win.
“They have done so well and obviously their points reflect that,” Gilbert said. “They’re playing a schedule [against] tough teams and getting those points, even if they are losing.”
Hopewell’s offense is averaging 25.3 points per game this season and features a good combination of size and speed, Gilbert said. Skyline is expecting to see plenty of read-option from the Blue Devils and sophomore quarterback Cameren Hill, whom Gilbert said has “lightning in his legs.”
The Hawks are allowing 17.8 points and only 184.2 yards per game this season.
“They really like the read-option, pulling their guards and they’re really making good use of their size and athletic ability,” Hawks senior lineman Ronnie Clifton said. “That’s definitely going to keep us on our toes. We’ve got to be ready.”
Hill did go down with a hip pointer injury in Hopewell’s loss to Prince George last week, but Gilbert said the Hawks are preparing to see the quarterback on Saturday.
“We’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game to stop him and everybody else,” Gilbert said. “They’ve got talented receivers. They’ve got fast running backs. And then him in the mix, it gets to be a lot. If he’s out there, we know we’re going to get a whole lot of [Hill].”
Defensively, the Blue Devils are allowing 33 points per game, but they do feature a talented defensive end in 6-foot-4, 220-pound senior Darrell Taylor.
Taylor, who also plays wide receiver for Hopewell alongside 6-foot-3, 208-pound senior Matt Trevillian, has committed to play football at the University of Tennessee next year.
Gilbert pointed to team speed as Hopewell’s biggest strength on defense.
“You look at their size, they’ve got real good size with their d-line up front. Their linebackers aren’t going to impress you with their size … but they fly,” Gilbert said. “They are so fast and speed kills. And they’re aggressive in coverage and they make plays. They force you to make plays and the back-end players can make you pay.”
Skyline is averaging 23.4 points and 330 yards per game this fall, and the Hawks have shown great balance this season.
Junior quarterback Corban Ruch, who was named the Conference 28 Offensive Player of the Year earlier this week, has completed 111 of 210 passes for 1,685 yards, 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while adding 370 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
Ruch has developed an explosive connection with senior receiver Jamal Parker (35 catches, 940 yards, 15 touchdowns) this fall, but Ruch said the Hawks will need to establish a consistent rushing attack with senior Jerrius Baltimore (143 carries, 781 yards, 5 TDs) against Hopewell if they are to be successful.
Gilbert said in Skyline’s loss two weeks ago, Sherando was able to shut down the Hawks’ rushing attack with only five defenders in the box. Gilbert added that Skyline needs to establish the run game to keep the pressure off of Ruch, who threw five interceptions against Sherando.
“We know that we have to be able to run the ball, which I think we’re definitely capable of doing,” Ruch said. “And just keep doing what we’ve been able to do to spread out the defense and do our thing.”
Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com