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Football Tab 2018: Warren County continuing to build in year two under Bush

Warren County's Ronnie Dodson returns to lead the Wildcats' offense after rushing for 1,539 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2017. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – The accomplishments were plentiful for Warren County’s football team in its first season under head coach Brian Bush.

The Wildcats finished the 2017 season with a 7-5 record, their first winning mark since the 2013 season. They reached the playoffs for the first time in three seasons, and their first-round playoff win over cross-town rival Skyline was the program’s first postseason victory in four years.

Warren County would certainly like to take things a step further than a second-round playoff appearance in 2018, but the Wildcats’ core goals remain largely unchanged from a year ago. Senior running back Ronnie Dodson said recently that the Wildcats don’t set out to install goals that relate to wins and losses – such as winning a state title, for example – but instead focus their energy on developing qualities such as togetherness.

That’s in line with the culture Bush has been creating since he took over the program last year.

“To me it’s not about the wins and losses,” Bush said earlier this month. “It’s about, one, we’re here to build a culture and build a program that we play together, we come together and we make sure that win or lose, we’re gonna do it together. That’s our goal because we’re always gonna have talent. We’re always gonna have those guys that wanna play football, that can play football. We’re gonna have a few guys that are strong, a few guys that are fast. But if you don’t come together as a family, it doesn’t matter about those things.”

While the Wildcats were busy building that cohesiveness during the preseason, they also had to fill the holes left by the graduation of 20 seniors from the 2017 squad. Warren County returns a total of nine starters from last year’s team, including four on offense and five on defense.

Despite the roster turnover, Bush said when the team began practice on July 30 that he felt the Wildcats were out of the get-to-know-you stage and a lot further along than a year ago. Offensively, that means the Wildcats are better acclimated to Bush’s pistol offense, which generated 25.7 points and nearly 300 yards per game last season.

“Year two is a good year to sort of review what we had last year and sort of take away things we don’t need,” Bush said, “and make sure that we simplify it a little bit, that way we can build on top of it with whatever we need.”

Warren County should benefit from a year of growth for sophomore quarterback Bryce Post, who stepped in as the starter two games into the 2017 season and completed 46 of 95 passes (48.4 percent) for 923 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions as a freshman.

The Wildcats’ biggest return on offense, however, is at running back, where senior Ronnie Dodson figures to once again be the focal point. Dodson was the team’s workhorse last season, carrying 278 times for 1,529 yards and 15 touchdowns. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound senior averaged 23.2 carries per game in 2017.

“Last year he put the weight on his shoulders and we were very successful,” Bush said of Dodson, a 2017 first team All-Region 3B selection. “This year he’s gonna have to do the same thing but we’re gonna have to adapt to how can we get him the ball, and if a team shuts him down we’ve got some other pieces to open up the passing game and the run game as well.”

Many of those other major contributors will be new to the role. Warren County lost a pair of big-play receivers – Jacob Good (964 yards of total offense, nine touchdowns in 2017) and Ben Vogt (21 receptions, 664 yards, nine touchdowns) – to graduation, and Bush said a combination of seniors Ethan Patterson and Brodie Cripps and sophomores Marion Haley and Logan DeHaven will fill that position this season. Bush added that senior Thomas Cantrell is the Wildcats’ new starting H-back.

One of the team’s strengths, Bush said, should be its offensive line, where two returning starters – 6-foot-7, 320-pound center Ricky Dodson (a second team all-region pick in 2017) and left guard Jake DiPatre – anchor an all-senior unit that includes left tackle Aaron Schroyer, right guard Jordan Kenyon and a combination of Danny Bloomfield Jr. and Nate Stoneberger at right tackle.

Most of those linemen also will start on the other side of the ball on a defensive line filled with returning starters. Schroyer, Kenyon and Stoneberger will bookend the line at the two defensive end spots, Bush said, while DiPatre and Knorr Hunter Jr. (87 tackles, team-high four sacks, first team all-region in 2017) will start at defensive tackle.

The Wildcats, who allowed 18.5 points per game last season and boasted one of the area’s best defenses in terms of yards allowed, are less experienced beyond the defensive line.

Warren County lost six of its top seven tacklers from 2017, including its two starting linebackers in its 4-2-5 defense, Josh Edwards (104 tackles) and Jacob Dodson (86 tackles). Juniors Russell Rowe and Patrick Coffron will step in as that duo’s replacements, Bush said.

“Those two (Edwards and Dodson) were nasty on the defensive side, so how can we be that nasty on the defensive side this year?” Bush responded when asked about the team’s biggest areas of improvement on Aug. 7. “That’s one thing we need to improve on is being able to fly around to the ball a little bit more. We started to at the end of the year but those guys aren’t there now, so how can we build on top of that with those guys missing? We need to find a few guys that make sure that we do that.”

DeHaven is the Wildcats’ only returning starter in the five-man secondary, where he’ll be joined by Patterson, Haley, Cripps and juniors Joey Kilgallen and Isaiah Frame.

Warren County also has to find a new kicker and punter after the graduation of all-region kicker/punter Stuart Ashley, and Bush said Kilgallen and senior Keegan Brade were “battling back and forth” for those roles during the preseason.

The Wildcats, who went 4-1 in Class 3 Northwestern District play in 2017, open the season on Aug. 25 (a Saturday) at Handley.