Skyline football starts fresh on first day of practice

Skyline High School football players run through drills on Monday. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – Skyline High School’s football team mustered only two wins in 2016 and saw its streak of four straight seasons with a playoff appearance come to an end. With their sights set on a rebound in 2017, the Hawks hit the practice field officially for the first time on Monday.

Skyline, which completed the first of five sets of two-a-days scheduled for this week ahead of Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage, joined Stonewall Jackson and Warren County high schools in opening the new season on Monday. Central, Sherando and Strasburg began practice last Thursday, the first day Virginia High School League member schools were allowed to begin preparation for the upcoming football season.

“I already can tell first day of practice, everybody’s gonna work hard, so it’s gonna be a great season,” Hawks senior Ryan Scott said shortly after Skyline’s second practice session wrapped up on Monday afternoon.

“The mentality is to get better than, obviously, 2-8 (last season’s record), but if we work hard I know we’ll have a winning season. It’s nice to just start fresh.”

Skyline opened practice with 70 total players in the football program, according to head coach Heath Gilbert, including 32 expected to break preseason camp with the varsity squad. Gilbert, who is entering his 11th season with the Hawks, said that number is below the average turnout for Skyline.

“I think there’s a couple factors,” Gilbert said of the lower roster numbers. “Number one, they’re opening up a new middle school (and) the eighth graders are no longer here, so the eighth graders that could be right in the building and come out to football practice now are staying at the middle school for another year. That’s a factor, and then we only have two teams. This is the first year we haven’t had freshmen, JV and varsity. Actually it’s gonna enable us to be better teachers because we have eight coaches regardless if we have two teams or three teams, so it helps us to be able to work together a lot better.”

Despite the lower turnout, Skyline enters 2017 in better shape in regard to returning players with varsity experience after back-to-back years battling high roster turnover. In the previous two seasons combined the Hawks had to replace 41 graduated seniors. The 2016 Hawks had only 11 seniors listed on its roster at the start of the season.

As a result, Skyline returns plenty of experience on its defensive perimeter – although the Hawks will need to break in four new defensive linemen this fall, a concern for a team that allowed over 300 yards rushing last season, Gilbert said – and an abundance of production at the offensive skill positions.

Scott, who passed for 1,544 yards and 10 touchdowns and rushed for 385 yards and three TDs in his first season as Skyline’s starting quarterback last year, returns to lead the Hawks’ offense again this fall. Also back are Scott’s two favorite targets in 2016, seniors Luis Garcia (33 receptions, 524 yards, four touchdowns) and Trenton King (34 receptions, 439 yards, four touchdowns), and running backs Quentin Diggs (439 rushing yards, five TDs) and Tucker Fortney (339 rushing yards, five TDs).

“We’re bringing a lot more back to the table, and then you couple our schedule that’s more apples to apples, I think we’re gonna be able to compete every week,” said Gilbert, whose team has dropped Sherando and Millbrook from its schedule. Sherando and Millbrook combined to outscore Skyline 142-41 last year.  They were dropped as a result of the new 13-team Northwestern District under the VHSL’s new reclassification.

“I’m not saying we’re gonna win every week but some games we went into (in the past) and it was like please, let’s just not get beat up so we can play next week. That’s not that case anymore, so it’s exciting for these boys.”

Both Fortney and Scott said a lot of emphasis on the first day of practice on Monday was on getting the younger players up to speed and getting the full squad together on the field for the first time in order to start developing a stronger team bond.

Gilbert added that this week will be spent honing technique and learning the offense, defense and special teams before players put on pads for Saturday’s scrimmage, after which Gilbert said the Hawks can start “setting the pecking order.”

The head coach also praised the effort and attitude of his players and the Hawks’ coaching staff on day one, saying that he “couldn’t ask for anything more.” Fortney and Scott were equally impressed with Monday’s atmosphere.

“Definitely more energetic than last year,” Fortney said, “so it should be an exciting season.”

Skyline opens the 2017 season on August 25 at Central.