Wildcats set to open with Handley for fourth straight season

Warren County's Ronnie Dodson makes a move to get around James Monroe's Josh Coleman during a playoff game last season. The Wildcats opens the 2018 season at Handley on Saturday afternoon. Rich Cooley/Daily

FRONT ROYAL – The start of the high school football season is here, and Warren County, at least for one week, is trading in the Friday night lights for a Saturday afternoon contest at the Handley Bowl.

The Wildcats hit the road to open their 2018 campaign with a 1 p.m. contest today at Handley, marking the fourth straight season the two Northwestern District teams will meet in a season opener. The contest won’t count toward the district standings, with Warren County being a Class 3 school and Handley a Class 4 team.

For Warren County, the shift from preseason camp to game week meant a rise in the team’s collective focus level as the Wildcats turned their full attention to the Judges, senior offensive guard/defensive end Jordan Kenyon said earlier this week.

“We’ve just gotta focus up, effort. We’ve gotta put in a lot of effort now because now we’ve got it all done with, you’ve got the jitters out, you’ve got all that out,” Kenyon said. “Now we’ve just gotta go into it. I think we’ll be ready.”

Warren County heads into the new season coming off a tremendous first year under head coach Brian Bush, during which the Wildcats claimed their first winning season and first playoff victory since 2013. All that began, however, with a 14-13 loss to Handley at home in the 2017 opener.

Handley, itself a team that took positive strides last season, doubling its win total from two to four in 2017, enters its new season with a new – albeit familiar – face at the helm, as longtime assistant coach Dan Jones has taken over as the new head coach. John Davis, who coached the Judges for two seasons, left earlier this year to take a college head coaching job at Newport News Apprentice School.

In last year’s meeting, the Wildcats’ shut out Handley in the second half but surrendered a pair of big plays in the first half that decided the contest, a 36-yard touchdown run from Handley running back Malachi Imoh and a 79-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jacob Parker to Kevin Curry.

Parker – a senior who has served as Handley’s starting quarterback since his freshman season and completed 52 of 128 passes for 889 yards, seven touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2017 – Imoh (577 yards rushing, six TDs) and Curry all return for the Judges this season.

“They got some athletes, man,” Bush said. “I think those athletes they have, you can run any style offense and be just fine. There’s some threats for sure. You’ve got No. 3, Curry, who you can stop him, stop him, stop him for three downs and back them fourth-and-50 and that kid can make a 60-yard play easily. He’s very talented and he’s definitely one that can change a game and can swing momentum in a heartbeat.”

Curry, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound receiver and a standout on the Judges’ state runner-up basketball team, figures to demand much of Warren County’s attention. He caught 36 passes for 643 yards and six touchdowns last season and averaged 17.9 yards per catch.

The Handley senior should offer an early test for a Wildcat secondary replacing four starters in its 4-2-5 defense.

“He’s gonna make plays, there’s no ifs, ands or buts. It’s just when – when is he gonna make that big play?” Bush said of Curry. “But we’ve gotta have that mentality of hey, if he makes a big play, how can we eliminate it from carrying on to another big play and another big play? We’ve gotta stop it right there and make sure we fly around to the ball, because if he does end up catching the ball, well, if he breaks a tackle we’ve gotta have other guys there to sort of corral and gang tackle and get around the ball, because he will make people miss. We just can’t be walking around and walking the show. We’ve gotta be in the show.”

Warren County’s own offense sputtered in Bush’s debut a year ago, mustering only 128 total yards and one fourth-quarter touchdown (the Wildcats returned an interception for a score in the first quarter), after which the extra-point attempt was blocked to seal Handley’s win. The Wildcats’ offense has undergone some changes since then, however.

Senior running back Ronnie Dodson returns after rushing for 1,539 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2017 and figures to remain a focal point of the offense, but sophomore quarterback Bryce Post enters 2018 entrenched as the team’s starter after stepping into the role in the third game last season.

Post completed 46 of 96 passes for 923 yards nine touchdowns and four interceptions while rushing for 114 yards and three scores in 2017, and Warren County went 7-3 with Post as its starting QB.

The Wildcats, however, are breaking in a crop of brand-new starting receivers.

“(Dodson’s) a tough runner,” Jones said of the Warren County running back, a true workhorse who averaged 23 carries per game last season. “We just can’t let him get loose. If he gets through the first level, he could hurt us. We’ve just got to make sure we play sound gap responsibility and stop him before he gets going.

Handley’s defense, which allowed 29.6 points per game in 2017, returns its top two tacklers from last season in linebackers D’Andre James (86) and Quentin Newman (82), as well as Curry (three interceptions) in the secondary.

Bush said he doesn’t think playing on a Saturday afternoon instead of Friday night will have any adverse effect on his players, particularly since it’s the season opener.

“This is my first Saturday game as a head coach up here but it shouldn’t be an issue. I think our guys will be ready to play,” Bush said. “They’ll be able to go out and watch games, the first-week games on Friday and hopefully that’ll get them a little more excited to play. It’s gonna be a different type feel being 1 o’clock instead of 7:30. They’ve got a nice place up there and nice facilities and stuff, so I think us rolling in and hopefully we take advantage of being able to play in something as nice as that and play against a pretty good Handley team that will come out and smack us if we’re not ready.”


The Winchester Star contributed to this story.