Kelliher the ‘brains of the operation’ in stout Sherando defense

Joseph Kelliher Rich Cooley/Daily

STEPHENS CITY – Sherando High School’s football team has made a tradition out of producing solid linebackers, and this season the Warriors in that position group have been making their own marks.

Junior inside linebacker Joseph “JoJo” Doleman was voted the Class 4 Northwestern District Defensive Player of the Year earlier this month. Senior outside linebacker Michael Perry is a team captain, the Warriors’ sack leader, and a first team all-conference selection. Sophomore inside linebacker Payne Bauer leads Sherando in total tackles and put together one of the more impressive single-game performances you’ll find in last week’s Region 4C championship game over Liberty, during which he directly halted two fourth-down plays inside the Warriors’ 10-yard line with a pass deflection and a tackle for loss and finished with a team-high 13 tackles in Sherando’s 33-21 victory.

Then there’s outside linebacker Joseph Kelliher. The senior doesn’t have the flashy stats or the postseason accolades to match his fellow linebackers, but Kelliher may very well be the most valuable piece to a Sherando defense that is holding opponents to 17.2 points and 242.6 yards per game this season.

Sherando’s linebacker personnel varies based on whether the Warriors are using an odd- or even-man defensive front on a game-to-game basis, but making sure Kelliher is on the field is a must for head coach Bill Hall.

“Joe’s always in there just because he’s the brains of the operation,” Hall said after practice on Wednesday.

Indeed, the player with the GPA above a 4.0 is asked to flex his mental muscle as often as his physical ability each Friday night. Kelliher is responsible for making pre-snap strength calls for Sherando’s defense – a task the Warriors typically assign to their inside linebackers, Hall said – as well as calling the defensive coverage. In Hall’s words, Kelliher is asked to do “everything.”

“The number one thing about Joe is he’s such a quality human being, and so when you start with that as the base, we as a staff just trust with Joe with everything,” Hall said.

“We know that he’s gonna figure out a way to make a play. If something happens where there’s somebody that might be a little bit better than him, athletically speaking, he’s gonna figure out a way to get it done. And we just believe in him. … From my perspective, there’s no greater thing that you can have as a coach, is their trust, and we trust Joe, without a question.”

So do his teammates.

Kelliher, who has played two full seasons at the varsity level and played a “decent bit,” he said, as a junior last season, was picked as one of two defensive captains – alongside Perry – in a player vote in the preseason.

“It was a little different,” Kelliher said of his role change entering his senior season this fall, “especially from a leadership standpoint because me and Mike were elected captains this year and that was definitely not my role last year. I kind of just listened and paid attention and was quiet, so that has been a little bit of challenge, stepping up and being more vocal.”

Kelliher’s rise through the Warriors’ hierarchy speaks to the work the senior has put in during his time in Sherando’s football program, Hall said.

“Last year, being a contributor, was definitely a wakeup call because everybody out here is big and fast and strong and I wasn’t really at that point yet where I was that size and that speed,” said Kelliher, who finished with 31 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season. “So we all worked hard to get to that level in weight room.”

Kelliher played his freshman and sophomore seasons as a safety for the junior varsity squad, then was told before the start of his junior season that he’d be moving into the box as an outside linebacker at the varsity level.

Hall called Kelliher, who is listed at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, a “tweener” who wasn’t quite what the Warriors were looking for, physically, at defensive back but is also light for a linebacker. Kelliher found a role for himself as the Warriors’ field-side linebacker because he’s good in pass coverage and does well in space, Hall said, and because of his intelligence.

“He’s invested a lot for four years and the last thing you wanna do is not contribute,” Hall said.

“Joe carved out a way to make it happen for himself, because you’ve gotta earn it. And when you’ve got a bunch of guys like Mike Perry, JoJo, Payne – I mean you’re talking about three scholarship athlete guys right there. And for him to carve out a niche, that we can’t take him off the field, is a credit to him. The only way you get that is, one, you’ve earned our trust but, two, he’s worked his tail off for four years to earn that trust and we know he’s gonna figure out a way to make it happen.”

Kelliher has tallied 52 tackles (17 solo) for the Warriors this winter to go along with five tackles for loss, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. He missed three and a half games early in the season after suffering a broken thumb in the first half against Jefferson (West Virginia) on Sept. 1, an injury that required Kelliher to wear a club on his left hand until the start of the playoffs on Nov. 10.

With full use of both hands last week against Liberty, Kelliher pounced on a fumbled hand off at the Eagle 16-yard line, setting up a short, go-ahead touchdown drive for Sherando in the first quarter of the Warriors’ eventual win.

“It’s a pretty cool feeling, especially because I know if we force a turnover the offense is gonna do great because those guys are just extremely talented,” Kelliher said. “… When we make those plays we know that the offensive front and the offense in general, they’re gonna put the ball in the end zone.”

Up next for the Warriors (11-2) is a date with two-time defending Class 4 state champion Salem (11-2) in the state semifinals on Saturday afternoon. A win would send the Warriors, who missed the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons last fall, to their first state championship game appearance since 2013.

“It’s been awesome,” Kelliher said of the playoff run. “It’s been a really fun time, because it started back last December. Last year at this time we were lifting (weights) and we just didn’t want to be in that position again, and so we just kind of worked and worked and worked. It’s been really cool to come this far in this amount of time.”