2015 Football Coach of the Year: Gilbert led joint effort in Hawks’ success

Heath Gilbert

FRONT ROYAL – The turnover in Skyline High School’s varsity football team was tremendous.

Prior to the start of the 2015 season, Hawks ninth-year head coach Heath Gilbert had to find a way to replace the 19 seniors who helped the program to seven wins in 2014. To compound the matter, Skyline also had to fill the holes left by the departure of three assistant coaches, a void that was left largely unfilled until well after the Hawks began preseason practice back in August.

And yet through that turnover, Gilbert managed to guide the Hawks to a spot in the Region 3A East playoffs, where Skyline won just the second playoff game in the program’s short history with a first-round victory over Culpeper County.

For his success in navigating Skyline through the challenges of 2015, Gilbert has been named The Northern Virginia Daily’s Football Coach of the Year. But Gilbert insists that the honor is an award for his entire coaching staff.

“Football is a humungous beast and there’s no doubt that without my staff we couldn’t be successful together,” Gilbert said recently. “I’m really proud of (assistant coaches) Steve Burton and Steve Haines for what they did stepping up. We lost three really talented coaches and there was some doubt with maybe some guys on the team and maybe some people left because of who was gone, and for us to do well was really important. It was really important so I’m really proud of the guys, the players and my coaching staff.”

The coaching contributions weren’t limited to those officially listed on Skyline’s varsity football staff.

Gilbert credited Will Walraven and Paul Short with stepping in and “filling gaps for us to make sure we could get through camp,” while former Hawk standout Nick Helmick volunteered his time before he had to report to his own preseason camp at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. Gilbert also praised the leadership of JV head coach Ian Minster and freshman head coach John Lacombe.

The 2015 Hawks, who finished the year at 6-6 following a second-round playoff loss at Hopewell, were a resilient group. Skyline won four games decided by 3 points or less – in three of those games the Hawks scored the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter.

That resiliency emerged immediately, as senior quarterback Dylan Hamman – whom Gilbert called the team’s most valuable player in 2015 – capped a 73-yard scoring drive with a 17-yard touchdown run in the final minute to beat Central 28-27 on the road in the season opener.

Midway through the regular season, Skyline won a 29-28 overtime thriller against Northwestern District foe James Wood when Brad Halsey scored a rushing touchdown followed by a 2-point conversion pass from backup quarterback Ryan Scott to Aaron Tasker.

The Hawks ended the regular season with a 24-21 win over cross-town rival Warren County when Hamman – who threw for a school-record 2,180 yards in 2015 – found senior Jay Roy for the go-ahead touchdown pass with less than three minutes remaining.

Skyline saved some of that clutch play for the postseason, as Hamman found Marcus Burke for the game-winning touchdown pass with 3.7 seconds remaining in a 24-21 playoff win over Culpeper on Nov. 13.

“It shows toughness,” Gilbert said. “In the face of adversity they’re not gonna crumble, they’re gonna be able to handle things thrown at them like that. And I think that was a great sign of their preparation and attention to detail.”

But things didn’t always go in Skyline’s favor. The team followed its season-opening win over Central with back-to-back losses, the second of which came at Brentsville in a game that saw seven different starters served partial-game suspensions for various reasons. Gilbert said that game served as an “awakening” for his players, who realized they needed to change their practice habits and work ethic.

“They got it going and we turned it around,” Gilbert said. “If they didn’t we could’ve been o-fer to finish the season. So we were on that fence and they decided as a senior group, ‘we just want the team to get better.'”

Gilbert said the team experienced another turning point three games later. Although the Hawks were blown out by Millbrook on Oct. 9, Gilbert said the team was competitive on both sides of the ball at times.

Skyline won four of its final six games after that loss, its season ending with a blowout loss to Hopewell in the second round of the 3A playoffs.

“We actually gained confidence from a loss and it kind of carried us the rest of the way,” Gilbert said.

Skyline’s 2015 season sort of epitomized the history of the Hawks’ football program, which Gilbert said has been a “roller coaster” since the school opened in 2007. To avoid taking a step back in 2016, he added, the players need to show more commitment to offseason preparation.

For an example of how to approach offseason workouts, Gilbert said his players need to look no further than Sherando, a Northwestern District rival which consistently fields one of the better teams in the 4A classification.

“We give out a commitment shirt every summer of guys who made a commitment goal for the year. I gave out nine. Nine,” Gilbert said of this past summer. “We need to give out 50 shirts every year. And once we get to that point, once we are established workers like that in the offseason then we’re gonna be a steady program and contend for more than just first-round playoff wins.”

Gilbert, who generally guides most of the offseason workouts on his own due to the coaching conflicts of members of his staff, said raising that commitment level among his players can be aided by having more coaches available in the offseason. But he said the number one key is the leadership of the players.

That commitment this offseason is going to be critical to the Hawks next season, Gilbert said, as Skyline will need to replace 22 seniors.

“Right now we’re two years away and I have eight months to get them ready,” Gilbert said. “That’s gonna be the key. If those kids don’t work their tails off, next year’s gonna be a learning experience to prepare us for two years from now. Hopefully that’s not gonna be the case. Hopefully I get these guys to buy in and work that extra hard to make sure that they’re competitive for a varsity schedule, because right now we’re not.”

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