Falcons, Rams to meet in playoffs for second time in rivalry’s history

The yearly football clash between Central and Strasburg is always an anticipated match-up for players, coaches and fans on both sides. For just the second time in its long history, the Shenandoah County rivalry will be a bi-annual occurrence.

Only one week after meeting in the regular-season finale, the Falcons and the Rams will square off again in Woodstock tonight, this time as Region 2B playoff foes in a 7 p.m. first-round game. The teams have met once before in the postseason — Central won a 25-22 overtime thriller in 2012 — and tonight’s game will be the last playoff edition of the rivalry for the foreseeable future, with the Falcons set to move up to Class 3 next season.

Central, the region’s No. 2 seed, soundly beat the No. 7 Rams (7-3) on a soggy night in Woodstock last Friday night to cap a 9-1 regular season. Strasburg junior receiver/linebacker Trevor Sager said tonight’s rematch takes on even more significance than usual with its combination of rivalry and playoff components.

“The rivalry game is always huge. It’s the biggest game of the season. It’s what we practice out here for,” Sager said after practice on Monday. “You might practice each week for that team, but I mean you’re getting better for that last game. That’s the game you wanna win out of any of them. It doesn’t matter. To me, that’s the biggest game. If we beat Central, that’s it. We accomplished our goal.”

Central, a senior-laden squad with high playoff aspirations, was the better squad in a 55-14 beatdown of the Rams last week. The Falcons out-executed and out-muscled their rivals on the muddy turf, turning a 14-point game into a blowout with 27 unanswered points over the final 19 minutes of the game and outgaining Strasburg by nearly 370 yards.

The outcome was a testament to the Falcons’ execution and Strasburg’s lack thereof. Central won the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, piled up 500 yards of offense and scored five offensive touchdowns of 25 yards or more, including four of 55-plus yards. The Rams lost three fumbles — twice from Central’s 45-yard line in the first half — and mustered only 15 yards rushing on 31 carries.

Central head coach Mike Yew, three days after his team’s win, praised his players’ ability to stay within the “framework of the game plan” in the rout. Strasburg head coach Mark Roller said his team needs to be better in a similar area if it hopes for a better outcome in the rematch.

“The biggest part is we just have to play within ourselves and not try to do things that we’re not capable of doing,” Roller said. “We started trying to make big plays or big hits, and (we need to) go back to the fundamental things of just pitching and catching and tackling.”

The latter is a big one for the Rams, who gave up 335 yards on the ground and allowed 9.3 yards per carry. Falcons senior receiver Kyle Clanton — who was named the Bull Run District’s Offensive Player of the Year on Tuesday — gashed Strasburg for TD runs of 55 and 69 yards, and Shane Watson added scoring runs of 65 and 29 yards as both topped the 150-yard rushing mark. Central also scored on a 55-yard touchdown pass from Zeb Dyer to Nick Houghton.

“There’s no secret that they’re big and they run hard,” Sager said of the Falcons. “Not one person can be trying to make the tackle the whole time because they’re just gonna keep on running. We’ve gotta have multiple people making plays, and (they) have to want to make the plays, not looking (at your teammate) and saying ‘oh, he’s gonna make the play’ and then ‘wait, he didn’t,’ and then watch (the ball carrier) as he goes down the sideline.”

Central knows what it did best against the Rams — a grueling power running game led by a 1,000-yard rusher in Watson, Clanton’s explosiveness on both sides of the ball and a stifling defense led by the district’s defensive player of the year, senior lineman Declan Franklin, have been the staple of the Falcons’ winning brand all season long.

Sticking to that formula could yield more of that same success tonight in a game that could once again be played in sloppy conditions with rain in the forecast.

“I think the team that executes the best on a wet field again is gonna be a decisive thing,” said Yew, whose team fumbled three times last week but didn’t turn the football over. “Are they gonna try some things differently? Sure. Are we gonna be prepared for something they may try differently? We hope. And that’s the only thing. Other than that, we’ve gotta come out and do our game. We come out and play offense the way we did last week, we’re gonna line up and try to run the ball and do what we do offensively, and hopefully, it’ll be good enough to win.”

Falcons senior lineman Grayson Manning added that identifying any flaws Central may have shown against the Rams is a part of game prep as they prepare for Round 2.

“It’s definitely self-reflection time,” he said, “because when you play a team once, they know you, but the second time, they know everything about you. I think as linemen, as wide receivers, defense, we’re all gonna reflect on ourselves and kind of look at what we did wrong that game and what we can correct and fix it for this round.”

Central has won the last two meetings with Strasburg by a combined score of 97-20, but Manning said a Falcons team that has loads of postseason experience and that knows a little something about being the team to beat is aware of how the games intensify come playoff time.

“Everybody’s coming for you; everybody wants to take you off the high pedestal. When it comes playoff time, whoever you’re matched up against, they’re gonna give you their best shot because just like you’re laying it all on the line, they’re laying it all on the line,” Manning said.

“To have (Strasburg) back-to-back, at home, going from senior night to your first playoff game, it’s just huge,” he added. “The fans, they’re excited. We’re excited. I think everyone’s really looking forward to this one.”