Wildcats aiming to keep taking strides in semifinal matchup with James Monroe

Brian Bush

FRONT ROYAL – The turnaround for Warren County High School’s football team under first-year head coach Brian Bush continued its impressive course last week in the first round of the Region 3B playoffs. The Wildcats can take yet another giant step on Friday night.

Warren County, the No. 2 seed in the regional field, hosts No. 3 James Monroe in a 7 p.m. kickoff in Front Royal, and a victory over the Yellow Jackets would send the Wildcats into the Region 3B championship final just one year removed from a 3-7 season in 2016.

The Wildcats have already made their first playoff appearance since 2014 and, with last week’s 31-14 win over Skyline in the quarterfinals, picked up their first playoff win since 2013.

“This group has fought, and these seniors, they’re starting to see how hard they’ve worked, how much it can pay off,” Bush said on Tuesday evening. “And it’s nice to see them get this reward and be able to see that it can be done, because I guess here in the past few years they struggled a little bit. But these seniors are starting to turn it around and build this program.”

Warren County (7-4), which began the season 0-2, has won four straight games. Next up for the Wildcats is a James Monroe (5-6) squad coming off a 38-16 regional quarterfinal victory over Brentsville.

Ben Vogt Rich Cooley/Daily

Tonight’s matchup will be the first between the two schools since James Monroe dealt Warren County a first-round playoff loss (49-0) in 2014.

Asked what his initial impression of the Yellow Jackets was after a film session on Tuesday, Bush replied, “Very, very athletic.”

“For us to be successful we’re gonna have to contain that speed a little bit and sort of make sure we’re in the right spots and be self-discilpined, for sure,” Bush said. “We can’t give them penalties. We can’t give them opportunities in the short side of the field. We’re gonna have to sort of contain them and make them work for it a little bit.”

And the Wildcats likely are going to need to put a full four quarters together.

Warren County has developed an identity as a second-half team in 2017, a trait that could get exposed as the Wildcats delve deeper into the playoffs. In the regular-season finale against Skyline two weeks ago, the Wildcats trailed 14-0 at halftime before rallying for a 22-21 win. Last week Warren County led the Hawks 11-7 before scoring 20 points in the second half.

“We can’t take any plays off, much less quarters,” Bush said. “We need to make sure that we beat the man in front of us each play and win that play. The second-half team in us, it shows that we’re never out of a game but I want us to sort of put four quarters together to move us forward. And we’re gonna have to.”

James Monroe needed a second-half rally of its own last week against Brenstville, as the Yellow Jackets trailed 16-7 before rattling off 31 unanswered points in the second half, including 21 in the fourth quarter.

The Yellow Jackets’ offense is averaging 24.1 points per game this season but has scored at least 38 points in four of its 11 games. Junior Zakk Davis – the 2016 starter – and sophomore Jack Hardy have both seen action at quarterback for Monroe over the last two games and have some experienced receiving targets, though Warren County senior receiver/defensive back Ben Vogt said the Jackets’ running game – led by 5-foot-6, 160-pound senior A.J. Johnson – stood out the most during film study.

“They have a good running back. He’s a really strong runner. He has a good motor on him. He likes to run the ball hard,” said Vogt, who has 69 tackles and five interceptions for a Wildcat defense allowing just 17.7 points per game.

“Just from film we can tell he runs hard, he runs downhill. He wants to get yards.”

Defensively, James Monroe is allowing 25 points per game and held Brentsville’s run-exclusive offense to fewer  than 100 yards of offense last week.

Warren County, which starts a freshman QB in Bryce Post (36-for-76, 673 yards, eight touchdowns, four interceptions), has leaned heavily on a running game led by junior Ronnie Dodson (1,415 yards rushing, 14 TDs) and senior receiver Jacob Good (345 yards rushing, five TDs).

Bush said he expects the Yellow Jackets to load the box with a 4-4 defense.

“They’re going to sort of make us throw the ball and make us try to get outside because they’re not gonna let us right up the gut,” Bush said. “Their defensive tackles are big boys. Their defensive end (senior Chris Carter) is probably one of the best defensive ends we’ll face, other than (Clarke County’s Bryan Wallace). We’re gonna have to sort of move pieces around to get our best athletes some space and a chance to move.”

The winner of Friday night’s matchup will take on the winner of Saturday’s other semifinal between No. 1 Thomas Jefferson (Richmond) and No. 5 Culpeper County in the Region 3B championship.

“We’re excited,” Good said. “We’re glad that we get to be a part of this. We’re glad we’ve been able to get this far because not many of us have been able to. It feels good.”