Wildcats come off bye week hunting first win against James Wood

FRONT ROYAL – The start of the 2018 high school football season has so far borne a striking similarity to the 2017 campaign for Warren County.

Each began with a heartbreaking 1-point loss to Handley, which the Wildcats followed with a not-so-close setback to Kettle Run before entering its Week 3 bye off to a 0-2 start. But as the 2017 season proved, such a start doesn’t have to set the trend for the rest of the Wildcats’ slate.

Last season – Warren County’s first under head coach Brian Bush – the Wildcats recovered to win seven of their next nine games to record their first winning season since 2013 and reach the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. Such a lesson is one the Wildcats can look upon as they return to action tonight in a 7 p.m. contest at James Wood, a game that was moved up a day due to the anticipated impact of Hurricane Florence.

“It just shows that things can get turned around,” Wildcats senior two-way lineman Jake DiPatre said of learning from last season’s turnaround on Tuesday. “After two weeks, it didn’t go too well for us, but things can change, and we’ve just gotta work for it, and hopefully push to make that extra effort to get that first win.”

Last year that first victory of the Bush era came against James Wood, as the Wildcats controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball en route to a 35-8 home win.

James Wood (1-2), which picked up a 20-14 win over Skyline last Saturday, continues to boast the same impressive size it possessed up front a season ago, but Bush noted on Tuesday that the Colonels, now in their second season under head coach Ryan Morgan, are more experienced and “know exactly what they want to do” heading into tonight’s rematch.

“We’ve gotten a little bit better at identifying who we’re supposed to block and getting guys reps who need to play,” Morgan said. “We’ve been kind of shuffling offensive linemen around due to injuries. The more reps we can get those guys will be helpful.

“We going to have to move some people,” he added, noting he’s impressed with Warren County’s pursuit and aggression on defense, “because even if we block their front line, their safeties and linebackers will stick their noses in there and make tackles for losses if they have a chance.”

Warren County’s defense stymied the Colonels’ run-first offense last season, limiting Wood to just 94 yards rushing and recovering three fumbles. The Wildcats were particularly effective against running back William Crowder, who managed just 7 yards on six carries in the contest, but they’re quite aware the damage the fleet-footed junior can pose if given room to run.

In his return from an injury last week against Skyline, Crowder carried 10 times for 83 yards and two touchdowns, including a 44-yard TD run that would prove to be the game-winner with 0:58 left in the third quarter.

“We just have to do our assignment, and if we get caught looking inside or get caught going upfield, or just stopping our feet and playing in the mud, he’s gonna outrun us,” Bush said of the 5-foot-11, 181-pound Crowder. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts; he’s gonna outrun us. We’ve just gotta make sure that we stay disciplined and do what we can do to stop him.”

Warren County’s own running back, Ronnie Dodson, ran all over the Colonels in the 2017 matchup, gashing James Wood for nearly 250 yards and three touchdowns. Morgan said the Colonels need to win the battle up front in the rematch and “hopefully bottle (Dodson) up a little bit.”

In last week’s win, James Wood limited Skyline to just 1 yard rushing on 20 carries but did allow 237 yards passing to the Hawks. The Colonels also forced four turnovers, including an interception in the end zone as time expired to preserve the 20-14 win.

Dodson, who ran for 1,529 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior last season, topped 100 yards rushing in the season opener at Handley last month and also hauled in a 34-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Bryce Post, but Dodson was held to just 15 yards rushing on 12 carries in a 33-7 loss to Kettle Run two weeks ago.

The Wildcats have scored only 21 points in their first two games.

“When we get past the 50 we need to finish the drive and get inside the 40,” Bush said. “We need to not allow bad plays to carry over to making another bad play, not (let) a bad snap … allow us to miss a block or get confused on anything. So as a staff we sat back and sort of looked back at what can we do to help these players out and recognizing everything. I think we’ve done that and we should have a good game plan going into this game.”

Bush, whose team has had an extra week to prepare for James Wood, said he didn’t anticipate the game’s move to tonight having much of an impact on his team other than interrupting the rhythm of a traditional game week. Meanwhile, Morgan, whose team was forced to play last Saturday instead of Friday due to weather, said Tuesday that it would be “a little bit of a juggle to make sure that we get everything in that we need to get in” during the shortened week.

“We’ll probably have a real practice (Wednesday) where we would have a pregame practice the day before,” Morgan said. “We need the reps, the conditioning and the pace of a regular practice. … Everyone has to deal with it. You just have to roll with the punches.”

Winchester Star sports editor Walt Moody contributed to this story.